by Sam Juliano
Few directors in the cinema have split art house audiences and film critics as severely as Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowky. While his admirers have issued rapturous praise, even going as far as to declare him as the heir apparent of Luis Bunuel and the master of surrealist cinema, his detractors have condemned him as a drug-abusing pretentious hack whose work emanated from his own psychedelic drug experiences. Jodorowsky’s career began in the 50’s with stints as a puppeteer, circus performer, a mime, a playright, novelist, comic book author and finally as a film director. His famous early films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain were frustrating works, but they still displayed complex and inspired visuals and were impossible to dismiss. The heavily surrealist Fando and Lis again was a challenging work, but was partially ponderous.
In the early 80’s the director studied a new kind of therapy known as “psycho-magic,” which combines Jungian psychoanalysis with varying degrees of mysticism and superstition that talk to the subjects’s unconscious. This in turn is contingent upon the belief in a “family unconscious” with prior familial relationships -going back a number of generations – controlling crrent relationships. Jodorowsky stated: “If I want to understand myself I have to understand my family tree, because I am permanently possessed, as in voodoo. Even when we cut ties with our family, we carry it. In our unconscious, the persons are always alive. The dead live with us. Exploring the family tree means engaging in a fierce battle with the ‘monster’ like a nightmare.” These new revelations would form the basis of what must now be considered as his masterpiece, Santa Sangre (1989), a work he is reputed to have directed almost for nothing in return for full creative control.
As it turns out Santa Sangre has more narrative coherence than any of his prior films, but it’s no less bizarre, and quite a bit more revolting. The context combines elements of Freud, Jung, Fellini and Bunuel, but the combination of elements from each one create a work that is unmistakably the mark of Jodorowsky. The film has been called blasphemous by religious figures. The film is seen through the eyes of a boy Felix, who is played by Jodorowsky’s son Adan. The boy is raised in the “Circo del Gringo” located in Mexico City, and run by his American father, Orgo. Meanwhile, his mother Concha is a leader in a church, “Santa Sangre” whose martyr is a young girl who was raped and bled to death after her arms were cut off. The church is condemned by a cardinal and is soon leveled by a developer’s bulldozer. Orgo engages in a knife-throwing act with the Tattooed Woman, a circus regular who has adopted a deaf-mute girl, who becomes a friend with Felix. The macho Orgo then tries to indoctrinate Felix into manhood by having a large tatoo of an eagle engraved on his chest. But Concha soon discovers Orgo and the Tatoo Woman having intercourse and she pours acid on his genitals, instigating even bloodier retaliation from orgo, who then cuts off her arms before killing himself. The film then jumps to years ahead where Felix is seen living like an animal in an asylum who is also experiencing dreams and hallucinations. But after he seens the Tatooed Woman he escapes to re-unite with his armless mother. The Tatooed Woman is then killed by an anonymous assassin, free the deaf-mute girl from her physical abuse. Felix then becomes his mother’s arms, but the mother is soon when the son re-introduces his father’s old knife-throwing act, and guides her son to commit murder. Then the plot becomes even weirder.
While El Topo and The Holy Mountain are largely mythical films, Santa Sangre can be placed in the category of horror, following Joseph Stefano’s Psycho script even to the point of lifting the psychosexual elements. Robert Weine’s The Hands of Orloc (1924) and James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), not to mention Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) are obvious influences, but thematically and stylistically the film is linked to Fellini and Bunuel, the former for the carnival lifestyle, and the latter for the surrealism. The film seems almost shot from a hallucinatory lens, and the imagery is as startling and as beautiful as anything Jodorowsky has ever done. There’s a pervasive element of carnality running through the film, and the religious symbolism, though sometimes a bit over the top and obvious, is to be found everywhere. Slums, sideshows are darkened rooms are turned into and eerily beautiful otherwordly place, a place for all human excesses and most heinous acts are on display. An dying elephant is then aparaded around, and is given an elaborate funeral in one of the film’s strangest and most riveting sequences. But there s also no sense of reverence for any age group or institution, as in the sequence involving Downs syndrome children being given cocaine and then taken to a fat prostitute. And there’s the scene where a man tears off his own ear and then tries to force it into the mouth of a deaf-mute. Daniele Nanuzzi’s color cinematography is garish and saturated, with instances of disjointed focus, a visual quality of surrealism, those a circus is the perfect setting for such visual suggestiveness. Tolita Figueroa’s lavish costumes and Alejandro Luna’s rococo sets are all part of Jodorowsky’s visually convoluted but oddly metaphorical tapestry. Simon Boswell’s atmospheric music maintains the Mexican local color, but it’s also ironic. The film’s performances seem amaterish, exagerated and overly theatrical, but this only enhances the negotiation of the perverse quality that permeates the film.
Bold, audacious and stretching the boundaries of good taste, Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre is an Oedipal nightmare, a Fellini pantomine, a psycho-thriller, a farce, and a satite (mainly taking aim at religion) all rolled into one. It’s a hugely disorienting experience that will revulse many, but for others it stands as a brilliant psychological study of human depravity that one seen is seared in the memory.