El Topo (1970)

“Too much perfection is a mistake.”

‘El Topo’, directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky in 1970, is an hallucinogenic Western starring the  director as a black-clad gunslinger, El Topo who travels through the deserts of Mexico with his son. It’s a quest narrative. El Topo is tasked by a woman he rescues from a besieged village to track down and kill the four most lethal gunmen in the area. This task constitutes the first half of the film, the four gunmen are a weird mixture of eccentric, mystical figures. When El Topo has defeated them, he is consumed by guilt and returns to the scenes of his duels finding each grave swarming with bees. He then suffers a near death experience and spends years with a community of deformed outcasts. He then joins his grown up son, now a monk, in liberating the outcasts. The richness and eccentricity of the movie is clear from the tortuous nature of this description. It’s almost impossible to describe the story as it seems almost formless. But the deep layers of religious symbolism and allegory is what makes this film so watchable. El Topo is violent and visceral, Jodorowsky doesn’t shy away from excessive, and at times camp, effects, but these are all an integral part of the subtext, not just designed to revolt or shock unless when revulsion is needed to put his point forward. As with his later film, ‘Santa Sangre’, the film veers unsettlingly from drama to dark comedy and from the profound to the profane, but this unsettling feeling is, I think, an important element in the film itself. You’re not supposed to feel comfortable or settled, but rather disconcerted and confused. Jodorowsky’s skill is in keeping the attention of the audience using striking and elemental visual moments, at times entirely abstracted from the plot. These moments elevate the film from a trippy, heightened genre piece to a work of art.

Would I recommend it? Yes – oddly it works perfectly with ‘Yeelen’, the last film I wrote about. Both are rich with universal spiritual subtexts and imagery and both use, and importantly twist, the quest narrative. They also both deal with conflict between father and son to such a similar degree that it is tempting to think that the director of ‘Yeelen’, Souleymane Cissé, took some inspiration from Jodorowsky.

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