El Topo Movie Review
Pauline Kael called it a "horror circus," Newsweek "unique," and The Village Voice a "comedy that becomes a cult of salvation." Spanish for "The Mole," El Topo is an extraordinary film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean mime-cum-actor-cum-filmmaker. The film has the honor of being the very first "midnight movie." People crowded midnight screenings in New York City in 1971 for months on end -- the pot smoke in the theatres being so thick you'd have to wade into it. The film was a smash hit. Everyone was dropping out and tuning onto El Topo. Jodorowsky appeared on a talk show, an unforgettably spastic and delirious performance spoken in riddles (something of a precursor to Roberto Benigni's Academy Awards freak-out). There was a book version and the film became part of the cultural cache of the New York underground, if you hadn't seen or heard about El Topo you were very uncool.
El Topo's meteoric rise was short lived. Jodorowsky fell out of favor with Allen Klein, who bought the rights to the picture after John Lennon recommended the film, and Klein held a serious grudge: He kept the film under lock and key for over 30 years. The only way to have seen El Topo during that long dark time was to have stumbled across it on video (it did big business in the gray market of bootlegs) or via an obscure Japanese laser disc release. I first saw El Topo on laserdisc in the mid-'90s while in college, huddled in the library basement. It was a horrifically transcendent moment, and I remember laughing out loud, more out of shock than anything else, much to the consternation of the other library patrons.
The film is something of a revelation -- a Mexican spaghetti-western/allegorical mystery tour. The main character, El Topo (Jodorowsky), is a black-clad gunslinger wandering the desert wastes with his young son in tow. The first half of the film finds El Topo avenging the slaughtered inhabitants of a small town. After leaving his son with monks, El Topo goes on to attempt to defeat, one by one, the four great "masters" in duels. When he's defeated by the fourth master, El Topo is saved from certain death by a motley crew of deformed outcasts. They take him to their penitentiary cave and there he lives in quiet meditation for many years. When El Topo awakens "reborn," he leads his deformed compatriots into the light against the townspeople that keep them imprisoned. Naturally, it all ends with a literal blaze of glory.
There has never been a film as filled with metaphorical and metaphysical chock-a-block like El Topo. Buddhism butts head with Castaneda, geysers of water erupt from phallic rock outcroppings, an armless man wears a legless man on his back (the obvious inspiration for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome's notorious MasterBlaster), butterfly nets catch bullets, and there are pools of blood and fiery exorcisms. At times it's nearly religious, Jodorowsky isn't just some wild-eyed preacher howling in the wasteland, he's a learned and an accomplished actor and filmmaker. Much of the metaphorical imagery in El Topo is difficult to decipher -- Tarot and alchemy, religion and politics -- and it's layered with cultural nuances. But even if you don't get it, it works. The film operates on a basic level, dreamlike, hallucinatory, and at the same time it's quite funny, even endearing in parts. Other times it's exceedingly violent. There is also a swaggering misogyny that is repulsive; Jodorowsky's character is incredibly heavy-handed and abrasive. Maybe that's purposeful, but it's bound to put off more than a few viewers.
Cinematographer Rafael Corkidi captures the bare essence of the sweeping desert and editor Federico Landeros applies Jodorowsky's divine panic to his style, incorporating all manner of sublime and distracting devices. Alejandro makes a good Zen gunslinger. He's got an odd face, nothing chiseled like your typical western stars, and a crazy head of frizz, but his eyes speak volumes -- near maniacal volumes. The women in the film -- Mara Lorenzo, Paula Romo -- drift in and out of the picture, frequently nude. They are haunting and haunted, flitting at the edges of Jodorowsky's masculine fantasy. And yes, the little boy that Jodorowsky drags through the barren inferno with him is his son, Brontis.
El Topo is a magic mushroom feast for the senses that is maddening and magnificent at the same time. This first official DVD release (there was an illegitimate Italian pressing a few years back) is available alone and packaged with Jodorowsky's first film Fando & Lis and his third, The Holy Mountain. The box set is replete with extras for each film, plus soundtracks and other bonus material.
Cast & Crew
Director : Alejandro Jodorowsky
Producer : Roberto Viskin, Juan Lopez Moctezuma, Moshe Rosemberg
Screenwriter : Alejandro Jodorowsky