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El Topo/Review

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database

< El Topo
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Drawing its influence from Christianity, Taoism and the Surrealist art of Salvador Dali, Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo is the American western taken to the nth degree; drawing its religious undertones to the forefront and heightening its violent tendencies to a level of devil-may-care absurdity. Although Sam Peckinpah previously put brutality under the microscope in his groundbreaking The Wild Bunch, Jodorowsky took a more spiritual approach, turning the allegory of the western into a symbol-laden religious myth and using the blood of the film's victims as the paint for his visual canvas.

Acting more as a cerebral think piece than exciting actioner, El Topo succeeds as a work of startling imagery and brilliant conception, despite its initial adherence to standard western plotting. During its aggressively symbolic second act, Jodorowsky breaks the film from its constraints and crafts a work of profound imagination that has yet to be rivaled in experimental cinema.

Riding into the desert, El Topo (The Mole) is a black-clad gunslinger who plods through the unforgiving sand with his naked son clenched at his waist. His young boy is going to become a man today and he forces the child to bury his teddy bear and remaining photo of his mother in the sand. The boy obliges, since there is obviously no other choice.

Amidst their aimless travels, these two desperadoes stumble upon a village laid to waste; it's only remnants of life are the disemboweled corpses of its residents, the cries of livestock and the swarms of insects seeking sustenance from the decomposing flesh littering the ground. One dying man begs The Mole for death, only to be killed by his son, who is slowly realizing the sadness inherit in becoming a man.

Elsewhere, a group of bandits lounge on a crumbling mountain of stone. They lick and kiss women's footwear, slice bananas with samurai swords and fornicate with a stone tracing of the female form. They initially mock the boy and his father when they gallop by, but The Mole will be the one laughing last. He quickly kills the first two men with his six-shooter and questions the third before letting him drown in a pool of his own blood. The desperate man tells The Mole where his leader (the aptly-titled Colonel) and fellow "bandidos" are staying. Turns out they've taken over a Franciscan Mission and are running their crooked operation out of its accompanying village.

The gang at the monastery consists of five rough customers who occupy their time by serenading the monks with song, kissing them lovingly and spanking their bare behinds.* Their cruel leader, The Colonel, takes the neighboring town's only young female, forcing her to bathe and clothe him, and transform his portly and weak physique into one of a fearsome militant through makeup and disguise.

It's not long before The Colonel's reign of terror comes to a close, as The Mole kills the watchtower guard with one toss of a blade and single-handedly disarms the entire army. As the onlookers praise his efforts, The Mole claims to be God and strips and castrates the colonel, forcing him to commit suicide after being emasculated in front of the cheering crowds. This Christ figure then abandons his only son, preferring to have a life with The Colonel's chambermaid. He leaves the boy with the monks, telling him to live for himself and trust no one.

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Following this betrayal, The Mole and his bride share forty days and forty nights in the desert, just as the biblical Christ himself did. He commits miracles in order to sustain them, making bitter water sweet, drawing eggs from the sand and sprouting geysers of water from barren stone. Although his female partner tries, she is not blessed with his gift and only finds "nada." It is not until The Mole rapes her that she can commit similar acts of wonder. Yet, this "gift" is not enough for fulfill her needs and the woman still demands that The Mole shows his love for her by finding and defeating four great gunmasters who live in the desert.

The first battle is with a blind mystic who has trained himself not to bleed or feel pain from bullet wounds. He lives in a cylindrical building and is guarded by a legless man who resides on the shoulders of an armless man. The Mole doubts his abilities against an individual of such power, but is victorious after tricking the blind man by disguising a hole in the ground with hay and shooting him in the eyes when he trips. This dishonorable act results in a revolt from the paraplegic servants and creates a disturbing, hypnotic image that is repeated several times in a row to create a sense of hysteria. The Mole's woman, who is pleased with the disharmonious act, shoots the loyal servants as they run to help their fallen master.

The Mole also defeats the second master by false pretenses; shooting him down when he runs to help his wounded mother, exploiting his affection for his kin as a weakness. He also utilizes one of the second master's creations to protect him from the sharp shooting of the third master, who is stunned to see The Mole alive after a shot to the heart.

Despite his drive for victory and the desire of his lover, The Mole cannot defeat the fourth master, since he will no longer fight. He has traded his gun for a butterfly net and kills himself to show The Mole that he has no concern for life and death. This act of transgression scares The Mole, forcing him into an existential breakdown and back to the sites of his past battles. Yet, he can gain no new understanding and the crucified goat on the cylindrical house of the first master symbolizes The Mole's own desecration of purity and innocence.

Realizing his personal defeat, The Mole crosses a bridge (of understanding?) back to his woman, who has begun a sexual relationship with the female gunslinger who has shadowed them for most of their journey. Together, they shoot The Mole in his hands and feet, mirroring the wounds of the crucified Jesus and they seal their betrayal with a kiss. As he's left for dead, The Mole screams "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" So begins the second half of the film.

Suddenly, The Mole awakens in an underground cavern. It is many years later and he has taken over the role of savior for a community of disfigured cave dwellers. The dwarf who awakens him sends The Mole to their spiritual leader, where he has an emotional and literal rebirth after sucking on a massive dung beetle. He and his dwarf friend then plan to find a way to build a tunnel from the cave to the town waiting outside, so that the community may end their crippling deformity due to incest.

This great town that the cave people dream of is actually a living hell, possessing a violent and oppressive ruling class that use the Masonic Symbol as their religious icon. Historically, this image is believed to symbolize everything from overwhelming power to phallocentrism and is linked directly to freemasonry, as well as prominently featured on the American dollar bill.

In order to build this tunnel, The Mole and company panhandle and perform a vaudeville-style comedy act for the townspeople. Unfortunately, the creation of this path out of the underground will only lead these innocent people to slaughter and The Mole commits an act of self-immolation in opposition to the corruption inherit in society.

My introduction to this film came in late 1996, when I purchased a bootleg copy from a catalog of rare and obscure international films. The cover art possessed a quote made by Jodorowsky that has always intrigued me; "If you are great, El Topo is great. If you are limited, El Topo is limited."

Although it sounds pompous and elitist at first, I believe that he is requesting the viewer to stretch their perceptions along with him, instead of limiting themselves to more traditional ways of viewing cinema. This pushing of boundaries and expectations would be the basis of most of Jodorowsky's film work and his efforts are a profound statement against closed mindedness and the shallow conceits of the "limited."

Note: Although it may occur in an entirely different feature film, I recall a scene of the bandits sodomizing the monks after dancing with them. I believe this footage was included on a bootleg edition from Luminous Film and Video Wurks and was not featured in the Anchor Bay edition. Feel free to email the site if you have information concerning this footage.

Reviewed by Mdeapo

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