Jul 30, 2014 Anchorage Press
"The mole is an animal that digs tunnels under the ground searching for the sun. Sometimes his journey brings him to the surface, when he sees the sun, he is blinded." These words set the stage for Alejandro Jodorowsky's cinematic masterpiece, El Topo (The Mole).
Jodorowsky stars and directs viewers through a surreal journey in El Topo. Unlike most journeys that are plotted on maps from points A to B, the voyage crafted by Jodorowsky places the viewer in the center of a philosophical map and asks him or her to walk in all directions at once. This is not an easy feat for the viewer, but the director leaves plenty of symbolic breadcrumbs that guide one through the sanguineous plot.
The protagonist, El Topo, is a Spaghetti Western character shrouded in Mexican angst. His black attire defies the desert heat. Like a Clint Eastwood character, he is the fastest gun in the West, and is on a quest not just for enlightenment, but also for justice. El Topo travels with his naked son until he leaves him behind. The parting of ways allows each to pursue his own destiny. He is a hero of biblical proportions, and as such, El Topo falls and must reemerge into the blinding light of enlightenment. El Topo is reborn from one reality into another in a philosophical trajectory that is layered with biblical, platonic and animalistic symbolism.
El Topo was made in 1970. In 1972, it was selected as the Mexican entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 44th Academy Awards but was not accepted, it was also one of the Chilean-born director's most notable works. El Topo is as much a product of its time as it is a critic of the time, the politics, and struggles between culture and counter cultures set off by the cold war, U.S. interventions in Latin America, and the individuation of an entire generation through the groovy 1970s that was marked by the liberation of some members of society while others remained oppressed in its wake.
El Topo is marked by violence from beginning to end, and most frames in between. The element of violence has not only been a point of contention since the film made its debut, but it holds the kernels for inexhaustible analysis of the human condition that preceded the film, through the time the film captivated audiences, and even today. Compared to contemporary cinematic violence like that of Quentin Tarantino, Jodorowsky's use of violence is so fake that it's almost comical, except for the depiction of slaughtered animals. The acceptance and comic relief that audiences may find in violence should prompt one to question societal values regarding sex, violence and eroticism.
Pauline Kael, in a 1972 Mademoiselle article says of El Topo, "Some of the violence in El Topo is funny. But a lot of animals are killed in that movie, and that's not funny It's a very creepy thing to hear a young audience laughing and reacting at the same level to the surreal comic incidents and to actual death they can feel that it's 'hip' to laugh at bloody death in El Topo, to enjoy brutality and to take it as a sensual pleasure. It is a sensual pleasure that way."
While Kael's commentary was deft, it didn't explore current events in Mexico at the time the film was made. El Topo was made on the heels of the 1968 massacre of Tlatelolco, a plaza in Mexico City. According to accounts, the massacre of a disputed number of students, somewhere between 300 and 1,000, tainted the streets red, yet by the morning all the blood had been washed away and the massacre was swept under the rug by the government.
Tlatelolco haunts El Topo. The film opens with the main character and his son coming upon a massacre-a stream runs red with blood as El Topo teaches his seven-year-old son to show mercy on a dying man by directing the boy to kill the man, thus taking away the man's suffering. In what follows, the perpetrators are exposed for the corrupt charlatans that they are. Neither holy men, governments, nor the bourgeois escape criticism from El Topo. Like Federico Fellini did before him, Jodorowsky uses absurdist and surrealist techniques to say the unspeakable, and lay bare racism and misogyny. And, if all that weren't enough, Jodorowsky features key characters who are gender fluid, with heavily made up faces and voices incongruous with the gender of their bodies. Layer upon layer of symbolism make thorough analysis of El Topo impossible within this review, so it is up to the viewer to embark on his or her own surreal journey through Jodorowsky aesthetic landscape. Viewers will find that there is no landscape as surreal as Mexico. Even Salvador Dali recognized this when he said, "By no means will I return to Mexico. I cannot stand being in a country more surrealistic than my paintings."
El Topo shows at Bear Tooth on Thursday, July 31 at 10 p.m. It is also available on YouTube.