Perhaps the best way to start any discussion on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) is to quote its original advertising blurb, “See the naked young Franciscans whipped with cactus. See the bandit leader disemboweled. See the priest ride into the sunset with a midget and her newborn baby. What it all means isn’t exactly clear, but you won’t forget it.” Not only is that a rare instance of truth in advertising, it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the sheer strangeness of El Topo. And while it does convey the message that the film isn’t for everyone, it may not convey it strongly enough.
It isn’t just that the film is prone to trip the light incomprehensible in its wilder fancies. Nor is it that the imagery is often quite disturbing (possibly even disgusting). There is a streak of unalloyed cruelty to the film that is apt to upset some viewers (I admit I’m not comfortable with it myself). And then there’s the issue of the filmmaker’s unbounded narcissism. When the fellow announces, “I am God,” in the course of the film, you have a sneaky hunch that he means it. It certainly seems more probable than his deliberately shocking story that he actually raped his leading lady in the film (the film doesn’t seem to bear this out, but this isn’t the kind of guy to let facts get in the way of a story that presents him in the most loathsomely outrageous manner possible).
OK, you say, but what exactly is this film? Well, that’s not so easy to say. It was the original midnight movie (predating such films as Pink Flamingos (1972) and Rocky Horror (1975)), thanks in part to the endorsement of John Lennon. Lennon may have gotten the ball rolling, but it was the era in which the film appeared that caused its enduring status as a midnight-and-marijuana mainstay. It’s part of a time that was rife with experimentation, and whatever El Topo is, it’s certainly experimental.
The film follows (if that term can be used here) the adventures of El Topo (the mole) played by Jodorowsky. It starts off with him as a leather-clad figure on horseback traveling through the desert with a naked 7-year-old boy (played by Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis). Apart from the addition of the naked kid, it has the trappings of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western—on acid—with heaping helpings of undigested Buñuel. It even somewhat follows the pattern of such films, with El Topo coming across a town where everyone (including the animals) has been slaughtered (and often disemboweled)—a crime he sets out to revenge. That this involves bad guys who are dancing with, riding, spanking, sodomizing and otherwise having their way with a group of Franciscan monks perhaps tells you that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
What follows is a lot of bizarre symbolism (if it ever was or was close to a religion or a philosophy, it’s referenced here), sex, nudity, bloodshed and assorted perversity. At bottom, it’s a tale of self-enlightenment—with the main character likened to a mole that burrows toward the sunlight only to be blinded. All right, I’ll concede that. I’ll similarly concede that it’s every bit as fascinating as it is appalling, and that there’s a chance that this cornucopia of mismatched symbols means something to its maker, even if I think Jodorowsky lands somewhere between a true visionary and a cinematic snake-oil salesman. But I remain unconvinced that even Jodorowsky knew then or knows now exactly what it all was trying to say. See it for yourself, but don’t say you weren’t warned. Not rated, but contains nudity, sex, extreme violence, and just about anything else you care to name.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke