El Topo

3 out of 5

Directed by: Alejandro Jodorowsky

It opens with flash-cut illustrations of a mole (a ‘topo’), digging, and explains to us: “The mole is an animal that digs passages searching for the sun. Sometimes he reaches the surface. When he looks at the sun he goes blind.”

This is a pretty good encapsulation of the kind of circular internal logics that have obsessed Jodorowsky, and inform his artworks. It certainly works as a summary – on the macro and micro levels – of what goes on in the two hour “acid Western” journey of our titular topo, played by – natch – Jodorowsky himself. But packed into that is a lot of the symbolism that has also occupied much of the director’s work, as well as his Panic- / surrealist-fueled embracing of, to a certain extent, randomness for the sake of meaning. A lot of this carries over from his first feature length, Fando y Lis, but that film’s focus on sexuality is something of a backdrop here to Topo’s transfiguration; the rather immature male vs. female conversation of that previous film is expanded upon in the way a lot of free-thinkers go from coffee-house talks about girlfriends and boyfriends to late night college discourse on the power of faith, and belief systems.

And so El Topo acts the hero for his son (played by Alejandro’s real-life son, Brontis), instructing him to be a “man” by riding around on horseback naked, burying photos of his mother, and watching pa kill bad men, until the temptation of a woman, Mara (Mara Lorenzio) encourages El Topo to switch tracks, ditch the kid, and head out into the desert for the fame to by had by killing off four masterful gunfighters – again, an evolution on the structure of Fando y Lis: wandering about a bizarre expanse in search of a vague goal which promises absolution of some kind or another. El and Mara “discover” the clarity and drive of sex (in typically brutal Jodorowsky fashion), and then go all hedonistic in El Topo’s gunfighter duels, until the man is laid low by an indirect defeat, and his doppelganger (Paula Romo), and then wakes up in a cave populated by an incestually mutated clan, shaves his head, and works to become their savior.

Blood and gore and nudity persist, but Jodorowsky is a painter, a mime; these works never come across as flagrantly offensive because he seems generally interested in what’s happening on screen – delighted, fascinated – giving El Topo an internal energy that carries it through its relative randomness and lack of linearity. While Alejandro absolutely developed a whole belief system on the way he feels we transmute our feelings on things to other things – often represented throughout El Topo via frequent gender “confusion” of females speaking with male voices; odd sound effects overlain atop scenes; the flick’s general subversion of the Western genre – his movies are not preachy. They’re exploratory.

What they are exploring is either as glib as I’ve stated above or it’s not, and all of the various religious and genre referencing stuffed in here carry much more intense meaning than I’m allowing. I admittedly do prefer when Jodorowsky funnels his thoughts into more extensive world- and character-building, such as in his comics, but his films are still, to this day, wholly original things, completely drugged out and open-ended, but incredibly controlled feeling at the same time. El Topo is fairly grounded amidst his movies, translating closely enough to Leone to pass as a peer, and has some narrative “twists” that reward actually watching it, and not just tossing it on as a lark. I think the editing style can be a bit bothersome, with some moments stitched together oddly and cutaways for, perhaps, budgetary reasons, but in general, the framing of scenes is grabbing – wide expanses, the camera roving about as an observer.

In my own roundabout fashion, I’m trying to say that El Topo doesn’t really make me think, or bother me to ponder what it might be trying to say, but it undeniably fascinates, and surprises me how watchable – and ultimately consistent – it is.