There is no difference between money and conscience / There is no difference between conscience and death
– Alejandro Jodorowsky
It’s been over two decades since Alejandro Jodorowsky’s last film — 23 years, if you’re counting that closely. While many of us thought the aging director was going to be just fine tinkering with psychomagic and writing pretty decent comics to occupy him through his dotage, a serendipitous reunion between the director and his former producer (Michel Seydoux) during the making of Jodorowsky’s Dune (TMT Review) spurred the two of them on to give it another go. They’d separated on not-altogether-friendly terms after the abject failure of their Dune project, with Seydoux going on to produce a slew of forgettable dross while Jodorowsky made a few more modest attempts (Tusk, the underrated Santa Sangre, and the unfortunate O’Toole/Sharif vehicle The Rainbow Thief). I think we’d all accepted there would never be another Holy Mountain or El Topo. All this is a way to make it perfectly clear the level of apprehension I was dealing with when checking out this latest, deeply personal film from a man who, it seemed, had faded away entirely.
I was a bit late to the Jodorowsky party, my first encounter with El Maestro being a viewing of a fairly abused dubbed VHS copy of The Holy Mountain at a long-since-closed dive bar in Hamtramck, Michigan. During the Tigers’ off-season, the dude who tended bar there also tended to show various weird/cult films on mute when local bands would play so the hard-drinking regulars would have something to keep their eyes busy while budget-versions of The White Stripes did their stuff on stage. Even in that shitty bar, and even without sound, there was something undeniably singular about that film, with its wildly inventive visual style, intense color palette, and truly zany set pieces. I tracked down a copy in 2007 once it was released on DVD, and it’s always been a particularly joyful occasion to introduce new people to both that film and El Topo. People understand almost immediately that this is some totally other kind of filmmaking, and I was hoping that peculiar spark hadn’t faded in a man who’s outlived most of his surrealist peers.
The Dance of Reality is a lot of things, but primarily it’s a liberally doctored autobiography of Alejandro Jodorowsky, specifically his childhood in Tocopilla, a seaside town at the edge of Chile’s vast Atacama Desert. He shot the majority of the film on location, and there’s a certain timeless, washed-out, kind of day-glo beauty to the place. Conspicuously absent from this biopic is his older sister, who he’s been fairly open about his disdain for in previous interviews. Upon realizing this omission, anyone familiar with Jodorowsky’s work will understand that this film is meant to be an emotional and psychomagical biography as opposed to a factual one, which might irk some with a more traditionally Scholastic view of what constitutes good biography. The overall effect of this film is hypnotic and otherworldly, and really, the fact that the events are far too magical to have actually happened isn’t a detriment in the slightest, because this film isn’t really about Jodorowsky. It’s about what he thinks of humanity, and that is pretty damn fascinating.
Jodorowsky’s latest is an uncompromisingly lyrical and surreal film, which is only hampered by some segments that find the filmmakers’ digital equipment not up to the task of capturing the master’s vision. We’re introduced to a mother who only communicates through bursts of opera singing and comes up with a truly awe-inspiring cure for the plague; a classically Jodorowskian group of severely disfigured men (victims of mine accidents); and a brutal, Stalinesque father (played exquisitely by Jodorowsky’s eldest son, Brontis) obsessed with assassinating General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo and who screams the mantra “God doesn’t exist!” with as much fervor as a Westboro Baptist protester. Traversing this strange landscape is a young Jodorowsky (Jeremias Herskovits), ridiculed by his Chilean peers for his Jewish Ukrainian ancestry and constantly tested by his father for strength and resistance to pain. This boyhood Jodorowsky plays a Dante to the Virgil of Mr. Jodorowsky himself, looking surprisingly spry for an 85-year-old, guiding his younger self through sometimes traumatic, sometimes joyful, but always very powerful experiences. What’s most remarkable about all this weirdness is the director’s absolute refusal to treat any of his characters with anything less than the utmost compassion and dignity. Here we see a Jodorowsky less incensed by political discord and perceived injustice, and more concerned with the lives of the individuals he’s decided to follow in his film.
Through all his films, Mr. Jodorowsky has been obsessed with (or at least intrigued by) the search for a deeper meaning, something underpinning reality that precedes material existence, and The Dance of Reality is the most blatant and honest treatment of that search he’s ever produced. An obvious correlative to this is how transparent and blunt Walker Percy became in his latter works, the author realizing he was getting close to the end so he might as well put his cards on the table. This is Jodorowsky at his most sincere and loving. For a man who refers to himself as a mystic atheist, Jodorowsky’s latest film is by far his most respectful of religions and religious traditions, belying a deep and infectious yearning for something ineffable and a little frightening. Jodorowsky has created a world of alternating joy and brutality, a weird, somehow living place that I immediately wanted to revisit once the credits began to roll.