Directed by: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky
“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” Freud is reputed to have said. Freud never saw El Topo, the 1970 surreal, allegorical western by Alejandro Jodorowsky where nothing can be taken at face value. And I mean literally nothing can be taken at face value. Some movies invite you to speculate. They have layers that reveal deeper insights and more powerful themes as you peel the onion, but El Topo goes beyond that. The only way to find any story here is to decode the cigar, otherwise all you’ve got is a string of striking, sometimes disturbing images, some over the top audio imagery, and a smattering of dialog, but no story.
El Topo opens with a man on a horse, okay that’s not so odd lots of westerns open with a solitary figure on horseback. Only this man isn’t solitary, he’s got a young boy on the horse with him, a naked boy. Well not entirely naked, the boy is wearing a hat. The man and the boy are riding across the desert. They stop and the man hands the boy a stuffed bear and a photo of the boy’s mother. The man, El Topo, played by Alejandro Jodorwsky, also the writer and director, explains to the boy that he is seven and now a man so he must symbolically bury his childhood and mother and leave that part of his life behind. The child is played by Jodorowsky’s son but don’t bother trying to find any hidden meaning in that because there is enough going on on the screen to start worrying about what’s going on behind the curtain. Soon after the two ride on they stumble across a massacre, a whole village that has been wiped out. The last breathing soul in the village point them in the direction of the mad colonel responsible so El Topo and son ride off that way, whether to avenge the village or join the colonel is anybodies guess.
The movie broken up into three distinct parts, vengeance, self discovery and redemption, in each phase the story is told through symbolism and metaphor. One of the most basic tenants of screenwriting is the axiom “show don’t tell” and El Topo is the first example I have ever seen that takes the phrase too far. Indeed it often appears in El Topo that the characters are all playing some twisted game of charades. There is no acting in this film only posing. This isn’t a criticism of the actors; Jodorowsky didn’t want the actors telling the story. The symbolism is supposed to tell the story, which is great in theory, but symbolism is such a personal thing dependent on what individual viewers have been previously exposed to it’s a risky proposition to tell a story depending solely on the audience getting it. And speaking of “getting it” there is always that fear that your not, that there is more going on than you can figure out. It’s not a lot of fun doubting your intellectual adequacy for two hours.
Luckily beyond the symbolism, the film is beautifully shot. You can sit back and forget trying to make any sense of anything and just enjoy the imagery. When it’s not gorgeous, it usually striking. Shot in Mexico Jodorowsky takes advantage of the desert landscapes to give nearly every scene an epic feel and since he wasn’t concerned with realism Jodorowsky isn’t afraid to pose his actors for the strongest visual effect. Adding to the surrealism of the film is his use of wide angle and telephoto lenses that distort distances either compressing them or stretching them out; again since Jadorowsky isn’t concerned with realism he just uses the tool that gives him the strongest image. To be honest this is what I enjoyed the most about the movie. About a third of the way through I quit trying to figure things out and just let the whole spectacle roll over me. Viewed in this fashion the movie is enjoyable but at two hours and four minutes it gets a little long in the tooth.
The 1080p video is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfer comes from a clean print with vibrant colors. The skies are a deep gorgeous blue with white puffy clouds. The blood is always a bright nearly florescent red. Skin tones are neutral and natural appearing. The blacks are deep and crisp yet retain detail in the shadows. The focus is crisp with lots of detail. Individual hairs and grains of sand are sharp and defined. I never noticed and aliasing, moiré, blooming or other artifacts of digital compression. It’s a great transfer for a movie whose storytelling depends so much on its visuals.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround sound. The audio is presented in the original Spanish and in English. There are subtitles available in English, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and French. Like the rest of the film the sound is a bit surreal. The dialog and foley seem compressed and lacking in atmosphere. While the score seems to sit on a plane separate from the film. Some of this may be a conscious decision on the part of Jodorowsky, who even went so far as to overdub characters with incongruous voices. The English language track compares favorably to the original Spanish so don’t let the fear of subtitles hold you back.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The disc comes in the now familiar blue tinted standard Blu Ray case. The artwork is lovely and lets you know immediately that you are in for something out of the ordinary. As far as extras there is an interview with the writer and director Alejandro Jodorowsky as well as an entertaining, rambling audio commentary from the filmmaker. The commentary is part production notes, part memoir and part mystic ramblings. Also included is the theatrical trailer and a photo gallery that includes shots of the script with notes scribbled in the margins, original reviews and promotional materials and of course production stills.
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10
El Topo is credited with starting the midnight movie craze and I can see why. While it’s certainly an interesting spectacle when viewed alone, seen at midnight with a bunch of friends it’s not hard imagine sitting around in some all night diner watching the sun come the next morning and still talking/arguing about what the hell you just saw.
The Movie 7/10
The Video 9/10
The Audio 6/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 7/10
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10