Thursday, October 23, 2014
2014 Blind Spot Series: El Topo
Written, directed, set/costume designed, scored, and starring Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo is the story of a Mexican bandit who goes on a journey in search of enlightenment in a strange, surreal world. The film is a mish-mash of genres ranging from westerns to spiritual driven films inspired by Eastern philosophies and Christian symbolism as Jodorowsky plays the titular role. Also starring Brontis Jodorowsky, Mara Lorenzio, David Silva, Paula Romo, and Jacqueline Luis. El Topo is an off-the-wall yet extremely spectacular film from Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The film explores the journey of a Mexican bandit who travels through the desert to find enlightenment as he deals with the drawbacks of his journey and his search for meaning in a world that is very troubled. It’s a film that doesn’t play by any rules where its first half is largely a surreal western where the man known as El Topo (the mole) is a master gunslinger who goes into this journey where he would eventually battle four masters to prove that he’s the best. Yet, it’s a journey fraught with doubts and decisions that has El Topo question that journey. The film’s second half plays into the aftermath of that journey where El Topo becomes an outsider living with a group of dwarves and people with deformities as he and his dwarf wife (Jacqueline Luis) look at a nearby town and see its ugliness.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s screenplay doesn’t go for any kind of traditional structure as it’s more about a spiritual quest to find meaning as El Topo is being pushed to do things to become a legend only to gain doubt in his mission. While he is a skilled gunslinger who knows how to kill, he gets seduced by a woman named Mara (Mara Lorenzio) and he’s later joined by this mysterious woman in black (Paula Romo) who speaks with a man’s voice. Part of the unique aspect of the script is El Topo’s development as his mastery as a gunslinger gives him the belief that he’s a god. After his battle with these four different masters, he would later declare himself in the film’s second half as a man, not a god. Especially as the story shifts to several years later as he realizes where he is and what has happened to him. Even as he deals with all sorts of regrets and try to find redemption.
To describe Jodorowsky’s direction as strange and weird is really understating exactly what he presenting. While it is based on surrealism, there’s also a lot of spiritual symbolism that is prevalent in the film with images of crosses as well as dialogues involving spiritual ideas. Much of the film has Jodorowsky use minimal dialogue in favor of action and images to help tell the story as it is shot in a full-frame 1:33:1 Academy ratio. Still, the locations set in Mexico are full of wonders as it adds to the touch of surrealism from its deserts to the places that El Topo goes to. Serving as the production/costume designer with help from art director Jose Duran and set decorator Jose Luis Garduno, Jodorowsky uses a lot of ideas that plays into the world of West but one that is very warped as among the early images in the film involves a man (Alfonso Arau) eating or shooting women’s shoes that look like the come from the 20th Century rather than the century before.
The usage of close-ups, medium shots, and wide shots add to the beauty of the film while Jodorowsky’s approach to its look in its set and costume design create something that is very offbeat. Even his music score play to that approach of psychedelia that roams in the film with its use of playful Mexican folk music to hypnotic, organ-based music. Yet, Jodorowsky is aware of what he is trying to say as the film’s second half plays into the way faith becomes manipulated for something that isn’t very spiritual. Notably as it would prompt a young priest (Robert John) to find salvation following an incident that makes him seek some meaning again with the help of El Topo. Overall, Jodorowsky creates a very sprawling yet mesmerizing film about a man’s search for spiritual meaning in a very troubled world.
Cinematographer Raphael Corkidi does brilliant work with the film‘s very evocative cinematography to capture the beauty of the Mexican deserts and locations as well as some of the lighting in the cave scenes for the film‘s second half. Editor Frederico Landeros does amazing work in creating some unique edits such as jump-cuts and montages to play into the film‘s surrealistic tone as well as its offbeat humor. Sound editor Lilia Lupercio does fantastic work with the sound to create some chilling sound effects to convey some of its terror as well as the moments of surrealism.
The film’s superb cast includes some notable small performances from Alfonso Arau, Jose Luis Fernandez, and Alf Junco as a trio of bandits El Topo encounter early in the film, David Silva as a tyrannical colonel, Robert John as a priest who turns to El Topo for guidance, and Brontis Jodorowsky as El Topo’s young son early in the film whom he would regretfully abandon. In the roles of the four masters that El Topo would face, there’s Hector Martinez, Juan Jose Gurrola, Victor Fosado, and Agustin Isunza in terrific performances as these four men who each represent a different philosophy that El Topo would learn from. Mara Lorenzio is excellent as Mara as this woman who would fall for El Topo and urge him to face the masters.
Paula Romo is fantastic as this mysterious woman in black who has a man’s voice as someone who would be a pusher as well as seduce Mara. Jacqueline Luis is amazing as El Topo’s dwarf wife as she is someone who would take care of him as well as help him in his attempt to free the outsiders he had been living with. Finally, there’s Alejandro Jodorowsky in a phenomenal performance as the titular character as a man who has a lot of charm but also anguish in his journey as it’s one full of humor and energy but also a sense of danger as it’s truly an unforgettable performance.
El Topo is an incredible film from Alejandro Jodorowsky. While it’s a film that definitely isn’t for everyone in terms of its surrealistic tone and refusal to be defined as a typical genre film. It is a film that is still very captivating to watch to showcase a man searching for spiritual enlightenment in a troubled world that is truly strange. In the end, El Topo is a remarkable film from Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Alejandro Jodorowsky Films: La Cravate - Teatro sin fin - Fando y Lis - The Holy Mountain - Tusk (1980 film) - Santa Sangre - The Rainbow Thief - The Dance of Reality - Endless Poetry - Psychomagic: a Healing Art
Related: Jodorowsky's Dune - The Auteurs #59: Alejandro Jodorowsky
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