Digital Review – El Topo (1970)

Is there a better midnight movie than El Topo? I would hazard to guess that the answer to that is a simple no. With visuals that will refuse to leave you this is a cinematic experience that will not be forgotten by the viewer.

Our introduction to El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky) is of him taking his son Hijo (Brontis Jodorowsky) to the desert and telling him that as he is now seven years old, he is a man and the possessions given to him as a child are now not needed and need to be buried and forgotten. His son dutifully buries his possessions as his father plays music via a whistle. They then come to a bloody massacre of a village, quite possibly one of the most gruesome scenes you could imagine a person walking into. They find a man who begs to be killed as El Topo implores him to reveal what happened. Not forthcoming with an answer, the boy shots him. That is a hell of an opening for a film. One which Jodorowsky somehow manages to top it throughout.

4K Film: El Topo | Midlands Arts Centre

Unbelievably, Jodorowsky just wanted to make a standard Western. Yet this Western morphed into El Topo. Unable to persuade any studio to buy the film and distribute it, by luck he found a buyer at an art exhibition. Studios were afraid of the surrealism before them and rightfully ducked the opportunity of releasing El Topo. Seeing no financial incentive to take it.

Jodorowsky splits El Topo into two very different parts. The first is the journey of the man who thinks he knows what is right and will take vengeance for those that cannot. When things go awry in the land he rides on he wants to correct it. He does so with aplomb. Vanquishing those who murdered and raped, this is as straight a narrative as you get from Jodorowsky. In El Topo, we have sequences that do not link coherently (yet when you take a step back afterwards you realise they do). When we enter the second half, El Topo has been saved after going too far to correct the world and to find spirituality in his cause.

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He is saved in a cave underground by unfortunate forgotten souls. He rises to be a better man, having seen the light and wants to guide them to a world that is free and wonderful. A world that he believes they deserve. Unbeknownst to him, during his many years underground, the world has turned hateful, gluttonous and has forgotten to look after one another. It is worse than when he started and it terrifies him. These are allegories of the Old and the New Testament throughout El Topo. The switch in the story allows us to see this a tad clearer. The New Testament is a wild world where people have taken up to believe whatever brings them power and money. They have forgotten to think of others, to be spiritual. Jodorowsky does not let us forget.

Yet at two hours long, we are merely only seeing short snippets of what would be needed to make this narrative link better. We need to see what joins the narratives. Rather predictably however we are excluded from that. Would El Topo be better if it ran even longer? Perhaps. But that is assuming that our director wanted us to have easy connections, which knowing Jodorowsky and his future work, he wouldn’t. The links of religion and philosophy have always been rife in his work. Be it art, poetry or film, yet here he makes a point to show how angry he is that it has not been accepted.

El Topo is a hypnotic film, led by its brilliant conductor. You cannot look away from it thanks to its striking visuals. Even despite the over the top acting characters, the red paint instead of blood and the absurd visuals. Everything is a bit much, yet we watch and joyously, we consume it. Are there answers in El Topo? Perhaps, but better people have tried to figure it out and failed. Until then, enjoy this for what it is and if you find meaning, then revel in that fact.

★★

Available Now On Arrow Video Channel and Part of Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection Blu-Ray (Limited Edition)