Known by cult cinema fans as the master of the surreal, Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky presents avant-garde images that challenge viewers and present questions of religion, mysticism, and spiritualism.
Before starting his film career, Jodorowsky practiced poetry and dropped out of college to pursue theatre and mime. Through this, he moved to Paris in the early 1950’s to continue studying the art form. Jodorowsky has clearly always had an artistic streak within him and turned to Cinema for the first time in 1957. He directed his first short film, Les têtes interverties, which invovled mime to adapt the 1940 Thomas Mann novella The Transposed Heads (Die vertauschten Köpfe). It starred Raymond Devos, known for his surrealist comedy, as well as Jodorowsky himself.
Jodorowsky wouldn’t direct his first feature for another 10 years but spent the time in between continuing to study the arts and performance, creating the Panic Movement along with Roland Topor and Fernando Arrabel in 1962. The Movement’s theatrical events often depicted violence and destruction, with the intent to shock audiences, using animals and self-inflicted wounds as a response to surrealism becoming more and more mainstream at the time. Even before his film career, it’s evident that Jodorowsky was interested in provocative art, telling stories in unconventional ways, and confronting problems in unique ways.
Jodorowsky released his first feature film in 1968, Fando y Lis. Based on a play written by his Panic Movement co-creator, Fernando Arrabel, it tells a cerebral tale of the titular characters, Fando and Lis, as they journey through a post-apocalypse landscape to find the lost city of Tar, where they wish to find enlightenment. Throughout the film, they encounter many vivid images and odd characters and situations, which many perceive to be unnatural and disturbing. The film debuted at the 1968 Acapulco Film festival to a huge reaction – a riot broke out. The film was considered so shocking that it was banned in Mexico, and was recut before its release in New York, with 13 minutes of footage removed. Critics gave it a negative reaction, however, it has since become a cult hit amongst avant-garde film fans. Shot on high-contrast black and white film, the film utilized performance art to allow the audience to interpret the film in their own way, as the film is a representation of the human subconscious.
Jodorowsky’s next film, however, garnered more praise and recognition and was selected for Mexico’s entry to the Best Foreign Film category at the 44th Academy Awards. El Topo, released in 1970, is an acid Western film, in which Jodorowsky plays the titular character, who, with his son, travels across a desert to find enlightenment, much like in his first feature. The character’s son, Hijo, is played by Jodorowsky’s son Brontis. The film features a lot of religious iconographies, notably Christian and Eastern philosophies. Violence and sexual assault are also used in the film, owing much to the shock performances Jodorowsky used years prior – bodies lie in large pools and rivers of blood, surrounded by dead rabbits, just as an example. However, with the praise came more criticism, with critics torn on whether the strange visuals had meaning or were meant purely to shock audiences. The film influenced many directors, from David Lynch to Nicolas Winding Refn, as well as many musicians and video game creators. Its legacy still lives on, with recent films such as Rango, The Fall, and Valhalla Rising drawing on it as an inspiration.
Jodorowsky’s next film, The Holy Mountain, continued his exploration into surrealism in cinema, drawing on fantasy and religion. Based on 16th Century writings of John of the Cross and Mount Analogue by René Daumal, the film explores Heaven and Earth, death and rebirth, enlightenment and decide. The film is dripping with subtext, with every frame a detailed and psychedelic painting. Harsh colors mix with strange imagery to create what many people consider to be a masterpiece, although it may be tough for everyday cinema-goers to handle.
Throughout the film, Jodorowsky explores the nature of humanity, told through a simple tale of a group of individuals being led up a mountain by an alchemist, in order to conquer the gods atop it and rule the world. The film even dabbles in breaking the fourth wall, with a film crew being revealed near the end of the film. A chaotic exploration through the human condition told through high fantasy. The film debuted at the 1973 Cannes festival, and eventually became a midnight movie in New York City for over a year. The making of the film paints a bizarre picture of how Jodorowsky prepares – depriving himself of sleep for a week, instructing his actors to indulge in psilocybin mushrooms, and the central cast spending several weeks performing spiritual exercises and yoga.
Jodorowsky directed three films in the next 17 years, 1980’s Tusk, 1989’s Santa Sangre and 1990’s The Rainbow Thief. Tusk was a French film, based on a young girl who shares a destiny with an elephant. A lesser known film of his, it is still worth watching for its part in his filmography. Unreleased outside of France, the film is often considered something of a miss compared to his others.
Santa Sangre plays with horror and avant-garde and stars several of Jodorowsky’s family. It uses time manipulation and his signature violence and other shock factors to tell a story about a circus boy’s early life. It features yet more religious themes, with the destruction of churches and blasphemy. Receiving positive reviews from critics, placing on several Greatest Films of All Time lists from various publications. It further solidified Jodorowsky’s style, yet also showing his growth as a director, crafting more interesting and compelling stories, rather than purely leaving everything up to the audience’s interpretation.
The Rainbow Thief is most likely the least ‘Jodorowsky’ film in his repertoire. A large budget British film, The Rainbow Thief was Jodorowsky’s failed blockbuster. One of only two films of his that he did not write (the other being Fando y Lis), he has since disowned it. Being restricted on creative control, it is widely considered to be his least personal effort. He would not direct again for 23 years.
A well documented time in the 1970’s was a failed attempt to direct an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. His sprawling, 14-hour long script was a very creative adaptation of the source material, with progressive and psychedelic music from bands such as Pink Floyd and Magma. Artists such as H.R. Giger and Jean Giraud were tapped for art design and various visionaries such as Salvador Dali as cast members.
An overwhelming spectacle to even imagine, the film, unfortunately, fell apart due to financial difficulties. The film rights were reverted in 1982, and a film was eventually directed by David Lynch in 1984. A documentary in 2013 called Jodorowsky’s Dune details the story of this, featuring interviews with Jodorowsky, and a look at the art that went into it. It was released to critical acclaim.
Jodorowsky final returned to directing in 2013 with The Dance of Reality. Released to overwhelming critical acclaim, the film mixes political and religious themes with further stark imagery. It is a semi-biographical affair, focusing on his youth and features a younger version of himself as the lead, with the modern-day Jodorowsky acting as a narrator and guide. The film features many now-recognizable tropes of a Jodorowsky film – violence, mutilation, and troubled family relationships, but is a much more direct film than his early work. Rather than relying on shocking imagery, it has a more open approach to emotion, allowing the audience to warm to it, rather than purely being offended. The film’s trademark bizarre visuals feel like they have meaning, and can be explored upon multiple viewings.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unique filmography is a must-watch for film aficionados. His methods of storytelling draw on various art movements, from avant-garde to surrealism, with each film being its own distinct entity in its own right. While much of his work may focus on similar themes, the stories he tells around them are all very different and are worth exploring to see how he approaches these themes time and time again.
More from Auteurs
Quentin Tarantino is a powerhouse of cinema. He has proved consistently since his debut film Reservoir Dogs (1992) right up …