Wednesday, June 20, 2007

EL TOPO (1970) Movie Review

EL TOPO (1970)

In the desolate and barren desert wastelands, roams El Topo, a wild gunslinger, clad exclusively in black, and assisted by his seven-year-old and completely nude boy apprentice. When he comes into a village being ravaged by a ruthless and savage group of bandits, El Topo instinctively saves the village, and meets Mara. For saving her, Mara throws herself to El Topo. El Topo leaves the boy with the villages remaining monks, and heads off with Mara. Mara tells El Topo that the only way she will love him, is if he finds the four master gunfighters in the desert and defeats them.

Though no easy task, El Topo eventually finds the four gunfighters, but in the end is betrayed by Mara and left for dead. When El Topo finally awakens back to consciousness, he finds that untold years have passed, and that he is in the care of a deformed and inbred horde that is forced to live inside a mountain. The only way out is through a tiny hole at the very top of the mountain. El Topo sets out to create a surface level tunnel, so that all of the clan may leave and live in the nearby town, unaware that this is the worst decision he will ever make.

Forget THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, this is the original, the unbeatable, and the pinnacle of the "midnight movie" Thrust upon the United States and the world when John Lennon and Yoko Ono saw Alejandro Jodorwsky's underground film and persuaded a friend to distribute it worldwide, EL TOPO took audiences unaware, became a jewel in the crown of film critics, and soon became a must-see in the early seventies.

EL TOPO is a hallucinogenic western that is difficult to follow, challenging to decipher, and filled with cryptic symbols and spiritual overtones that will have the movie mulling in afterthought long after the credits have rolled. However, the film does have a clue to help interpret El Topo's journey, which is found in the powerful and simple narrative opening - "The mole [which translates to el topo in Spanish] digs tunnels under the earth, looking for the sun. Sometimes he gets to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded." Jodorowsky, who also wrote the screenplay and stars as El Topo, uses this short speech as an allegory over and over again, sometimes via metaphor and sometimes literal, thorough out the movie. It is the constant the keeps the film's themes going, and with it the rest of the clues to understanding will fall into place.

Jodorowsky's tale is that of a spiritual journey, of a man who is in search of something to make his life feel complete. As such, religious symbols and mystical elements play an important part of the film. Most of the film centers around Christian fixtures - including the cross, monks, mass, prayer, and divine faith. The film is divided into chapters named after books of the Bible, and El Topo is even crucified in a most unique way at one point. However, it is never quite clarified that El Topo is in fact searching for the Christian God, as the film also works in The All Seeing Eye (an eye inside a triangle, similar to the one a dollar bill), the element of fire, and meditation.

EL TOPO truly takes full advantage of film as a visual medium. Jodorowsky fills the screen with wild scenes of bloodshed and death, sex that is hedonistic, violent, sensual and taboo, visually arresting characters, the most memorable being an armless man with a legless man strapped to his back holding a gun. He sets out to shock with imagery that is designed to trigger an emotional response in all but the most soulless viewers. Jodorowsky also casts a spell over the entire film with his camerawork and editing, as he blurs reality to the point that what is on screen could very well be reality, a character's imagination, a vision of the future, or an aid to define the theme of the current sequence.

As mentioned before, EL TOPO is a very difficult piece of cinema to watch, but do not succumb to frustration so easily. Part of the wonderment of the film is its ability to mean multiple things as once, and to be seen by people in different ways depending on what they bring into the movie as a viewer. In that sense, the viewer goes on very much the same journey that El Topo does. And what you take out of the viewing may very well be a reminder and definition of just who you are. To that end, EL TOPO is more like a motion painting rather than a motion picture, and a piece of artwork that is worthy of the utmost respect.


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