Films We’ve Watched: El Topo (1970)

16 Oct

El Topo is a difficult film. It gives its audience no quarter and offers no comfort. Its frames are riddled with unpleasant imagery and heavily shrouded symbolism, and make no effort at an easy or accessible experience. But, after multiple viewings and more than a few hours spent in contemplation, I’m certainly glad that it happened. I say happened,  because that’s how it felt. El Topo wasn’t a movie that I watched, it was an event that occured to me.

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To describe the film by any conventional means would be futile, or at least counterproductive. It would be like someone asking you to describe a drug trip, the color blue, or the feeling left after waking up from a good dream. It defies tangible depictions and seats itself solely in the realm of experience. And it seems like that’s precisely what Mr. Jodorowsky wanted.

“I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill.”

That, perhaps, is the best possible description of El Topo. It’s celluloid LSD. An acid-fueled, surrealist desert saga that pokes at the basic tenets of western philosophy, eastern religion, and the whole of the human experience. It’s Timothy Leary and Salvador Dali dueling six-guns in the desert with the Grateful Dead.

At first glance, it might feel easy to make comparisons to spaghetti westerns like Fistful of Dollars or Django, and while some of the visuals carry over by nature of their common setting, a surrealist, midnight movie version Nick Cave’s grim landscape in The Proposition would be a more accurate comparison for the type of content and mood that El Topo presents.

It’s certainly not a film for the faint of heart. Although none of the violence is very realistic by today’s standards, there are scenes of Bava-esque rivers of blood that make Tarantino look tame by comparison.

The story ultimately focuses on one man whom we only know as El Topo (The Mole). He begins his journey as an archetypal version of the dark and silent rider. When he and his son happen upon a town, newly massacred by an unknown gang of bandits, El Topo reveals himself as much more. Searching a barren landscape filled with mad men and sexual deviants, he becomes a sort of messianic protector of the weak and wounded,  a wild haired prophet of retribution, like a death-dealing John the Baptist crying out in the desert for blood.

From this vantage point we watch as, through a bizarre series of events, El Topo trades his mantle as righteous defender for a role as a destructive force more akin to a hellish horseman of the apocalypse, then to a humble village clown, and ultimately redemption as a more perfect incarnation of his original form.

The trail of events that lead to this ultimate end are as winding as they are weird. Over the course of the film, our protagonist duels a series of virtuous gun masters, brings salvation to cave full of isolated untouchables, and rains retribution on a cult-infested town where slavery, gluttony, violence, and depravity wear their finest Sunday suits, and the only unforgivable sin is a failure to be white, wealthy, and Christian.

Religious themes run deep, and are predictably critical of some of the more manipulative hypocrisies of major institutions. Almost every frame is filled with some sort of spiritual metaphor be it Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, or otherwise. And while Jodorowsky is unforgiving towards many of his perceived flaws in the system, he gives weight to the positive power of the spiritual experience.

The beauty of this film can, and possibly must, be found in repeated viewings. What appears as randomly spawned dream sequences on first watch, begins to show forms of intelligent design on the second. Jodorowsky defies the laws of physics through film and brings us meticulously crafted order out of what appears to be chaos.

My advice is to watch El Topo once as a passive observer of a wild trip. After enough time has passed, watch it again without the unanticipated shock of the bizarre, and allow yourself to be fully swept up in the unexpected truth of Jodorowsky’s acid-spawned universe. But, by all means; buy the ticket, take the ride.

– Blake

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One Response to “Films We’ve Watched: El Topo (1970)”

  1. Mark Griffith April 18, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    Nice Review! I saw this movie back when I was in high school. (Lets just say a long time ago) and It blew my mind at the time. The uninitiated may want to start with Santa Sangre. It’s arguable his most accessible and linear work. After that you can dive into to El Topo and The Holy Mountain.

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