[5 February 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Considering the limited number of films he’s made (five, and holding), Alejandro Jodorowsky remains a true cinematic auteur. His four main efforts - Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre - stand as artistic statements so profound and conspiratorially masterful that his intense vision stands apart from other determined directorial brethren. Like a diabolical combination of Dario Argento, Jose Mojica Marins, and Federico Fellini (with just a smidgen of David Lynch tossed in for fever dream measure), he transports hot button issues like religion and regional politics into a potent optical stew of suggestion and symbolism. Like a surreal sentence that fails to make sense the first time you hear it, you have to immerse yourself in Jodorowsky’s muse. As he parses imagery and polishes up the ball peen, he sneaks something by you that only sinks in later…much later.
Perhaps it’s best that he’s kept his experiments to a minimum. It makes monumental achievements like Santa Sangre all the sweeter. It tells the complex tale of Fenix, an institutionalized young man who was once a boy magician in his American ex-patriot father’s Mexican circus. When a tattooed woman shows up, causing trouble between his parents, the boy seeks solace in a young death mute girl. He later witnesses his religious fanatic mother’s arms being hacked off, leading to his current catatonic metal state. An incident outside the asylum jogs his memory, and soon he is reunited with his limbless parent. Together, they form an intriguing nightclub act - she providing the words and movement, he providing her missing body parts. But there is a dark side to this reunion, a murderous intent on the part of the damaged bitter woman. Anyone that catches her son’s eye must die - and she will make his hands do the dreadful deed.
Part giallo, part phantasmagorical parade, Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky adapting his otherwise outsized style for a more “commercial” approach. While it didn’t seem that way when the movie was first released in 1989, time and the expectations have definitely caught up with the arthouse agent provocateur. With the advent of DVD, and the discovery of thousands of likeminded motion picture makers from around the world, Jodorowsky’s ideas have become the foundation for an entire subgenre of genius. As with his other masterpieces - Topo and Mountain - the director is digging through a vast imagination wasteland, conjuring heroes and villains, saints and demons with a dramatic drive reserved for only the finest film minds. He then sprinkles on his own unique allusions to make the sometimes elusive metaphors even more meaningful.
At its core, Santa Sangre is a film about redemption as revenge. It’s about the bifurcated nature of the human soul. Fenix, as a young boy, wears a man’s moustache to imitate maturity. When he shows the least amount of childlike fear or sadness, his father furthers the fraud by tattooing a large eagle on his chest. It’s supposed to symbolize a coming of age, but in Jodorowsky’s hands, it actually hints at both a youth desperate to escape and a manly trial by knife blade. Bird imagery is everywhere - when we first meet Fenix, he is locked in a nuthouse, living like a human avian. His obsession with the mime-faced deaf/mute girl centers around her graceful panto of a hawk. From the “clipped wings” of his Norman Bates-esque mother to the various illusions centering around doves and other creatures, Jodorowsky wants to juxtapose the trap Fenix is in - mentally and physically - with the freedom of being able to simply ‘fly away’.
There is also a strong theme of psychological dysfunction and the power of memory here. We see most of the world through Fenix’s eyes, and it’s a landscape dotted with confusing religious iconography, isolated instances of grief and joy, the nonstop trill of a slightly off-key calliope, and of course, rivers of red, red blood. The movie’s title suggests that every killing in this carnival of gore is set up as an act of salvation - or sacrifice. The connection to sexuality and gender are clear (the victims are always women, and always seem to be paying for “arousing” Fenix’s often inert desires) and yet the continued crime spree seems illogical. Once the first victim is felled - in a manner that would make the aforementioned Italian Hitchcock more than a little jealous - the purpose becomes fuzzy. Even the inner motivation we learn of later appears antithetical to the “holy” element implied.
Like Marins, who confronts institutional superstition and organized persecution in his native Brazil, Jodorowsky purposefully tweaks the conventions of the society he’s set within. His love of Mexico and its culture is readily apparent in the backdrops he focuses on, yet he also undermines such affection by portraying the people as clueless, callous, and corrupt. A scene where actual Down’s Syndrome victims are lured into the arms of an elephantine hooker may seem shocking and exploitative, but this is part of Santa Sangre‘s plan. We need to view the world around Fenix as cruel and unkind. We want to witness its various closed door misdeeds. In some sinister, perverted way, it makes his actions all the more triumphant. Instead of being a mere murderer (or accomplice in same), he’s some manner of backwards martyr.
Only Jodorowsky could get away with oddball aspects as diverse as an elephant’s funeral, a manmade musclewoman, a giant ventriloquist dummy, a tribute to Marcel Marceau, a blasphemous cult, and lucadores and still survive the creative chaos. As an exercise in awe, Santa Sangre never fails to impress. Just when you think the filmmaker has no more brilliance up his baroque sleeves, along comes a near musical numbers set among the harried streetwalkers of a Mexican slum. The film does settle in to something akin to normalcy, a seduction/slaughter dynamic used to move us through most of the last hour, but as with any great work of unquestionable radiance, Jodorowsky is merely using the contrivance as a tool. It’s all part of a bigger picture plan, a way of working through complicated topics in a telling, yet somewhat secretive way.
We learn more about his overall intent as part of the monumental four hours plus of supplemental features connected to this beautiful Blu-ray release (the tech specs are quite stunning). Jodorowsky sits down for an insightful commentary track, as well as a 90 minute interview featurette on the making of the movie. We also get a collection of deleted scenes with a discussion of what they mean/why they failed to make the final cut. There are Q&A’s, festival presentations, short films, a 1990 UK documentary on the filmmaker, and even an overview of Goyo Cardenas, a spree killer who inspired Jodorowsky to make this movie. In a package usually reserved for a handpicked bit of Criterion classicism, Severin Films have stepped up and given a long OOP gem a gorgeous, gleaming polish.
And no one deserves it more than Jodorowsky. Long relegated to a trivia question as part of some Midnight Movie mention, he is actually one of the most astonishingly gifted visionaries ever to work within the medium. Film can be many things - mere entertainment, style over substance, sloppy commercial pap, and in rare instances, bold aesthetic benchmarks. Somehow, Santa Sangre and its eccentric creator manages to cross all kinds - and then throw in a few more filmic facets for good measure. While his fiscal career was made in other mediums (he was a renowned comic book artist before finding cinema), his name was made in reels of celluloid. Alongside his other courageous statements of motion picture perfection, Santa Sangre will forever remain. Similarly, when one discusses the artform’s icons, Alejandro Jodorowsky must be mentioned.