by Matt Levine
“Reality” is a malleable concept to Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Chilean-French director-poet-mystic-lecturer-comic-book-artist has long wielded the confrontational methods of surrealism and anarchism to concoct the most mind-blowing trips imaginable without the aid of lysergic acid. In the gonzo midnight-movie triptych of Fando and Lis (1968), El Topo (1970), and The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky obliterates reality and erects a demented spiritual-visceral hallucination in its place, evoking vague yet compelling symbols for enlightenment, immortality, and universal harmony. It’s hardly a surprise that Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality, based on his own autobiography—his first film in 23 years (a hiatus spent trying to wrangle production funds from cowardly producers, a gang Jodorowsky has often candidly decried)—resembles the self-portraits of Fellini or Raul Ruiz more than a straightforward memoir. Spiritual metaphor and grotesque surrealism coexist contentiously with what we expect of realism, but the alchemy that’s created is meant to evoke a more elusive depiction of life and memory: after all, the past that's forged in our remembrances often assumes a disfigured form.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Producers: Moisés Cosío, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux
Writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Cinematographer: Jean-Marie Dreujou
Editor: Maryline Monthieux
Music: Adan Jodorowsky
Cast: Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Jeremias Herskovits, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Bastián Bodenhöfer, Adan Jodorowsky, Cristobal Jodorowsky
Premiere: May 18, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 23, 2014
US Distributor: ABKCO Films
Much of the film is set in Tocopilla, the small coastal Chilean village where Jodorowsky was raised, whose ravishing seaside scenery provides The Dance of Reality with some of its most gorgeous images. As seen in the film, his parents seem to be hyperbolic fantasies of how the director perceives them. His father, Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky—real-life son of Alejandro), is an absurdly virile Communist, forcing his son to endure dental surgery without anesthesia and repeatedly screaming at him, “God does not exist!” His mother Sara (Pamela Flores), meanwhile, is an enormously buxom (and distressingly sexist) image of female beauty who sings all of her dialogue in an angelic soprano. When we first meet young Alejandro, he’s bedecked in an absurd golden wig—hair supposedly inherited from Sara’s father, who died at the moment of Alejandro’s birth by accidentally immolating himself in kerosene. Worried that the blonde locks make Alejandro appear too effeminate, Jaime forces him to visit the local barber, who peels the lush hair off of Alejandro’s scalp like an exoskeleton—after which the blonde wig dissolves into nothingness.
Alejandro, it seems, has symbolically become a man, though his rosy cheeks and curled eyelashes still suggest him as more androgynous than masculine. As a cursory attempt at familial bonding, Jaime makes Alejandro the mascot for the local fire station, even providing him with a costume that uncomfortably resembles the Fascist uniforms seen later in the film. Jaime’s sign of burgeoning respect for his son backfires, though, when Alejandro joins the firefighters on a rescue mission to the slums outside the city; he catches sight of a badly charred corpse in one of the destroyed favelas, then dreams that he is trapped in a casket with the decaying body. “God does not exist!” the dead man growls as worms and maggots cover them.
Like many fantastical memoirs, The Dance of Reality charts an episodic storyline, proceeding from one baroque event to the next with only slight thematic or stylistic linkage (the plaintive music by Jodorowsky’s other son, Adan, is essential in bridging these scenes). Prepubescent sexuality is a strong focus, as Alejandro joins his schoolmates in masturbating by a seaside cliff—only to be chased away when they discover his circumcised penis is different than theirs. (The boys can be seen jerking off wooden dowels—an absurd image that fits into Jodorowsky’s aesthetic while avoiding accusations of child sexuality.) Later, in order to appease Alejandro’s fears of an encroaching darkness, his mother undresses, slathers him in black shoe polish, and invites him to “find his white princess”—a marvelously creepy evocation of Oedipal lust.
Much of the film, though, focuses on Alejandro’s father Jaime and his political commitment to Communism. Jaime and his comrades plot to assassinate the Chilean dictator Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (a real-life despot who served as the country's president in two separate terms), though Jaime first wants to kill Ibáñez’s beloved horse Bucephalus to torment him. He even becomes the dictator’s official stableman, though his intensifying love for Bucephalus complicates his plot, and eventually paralyzes Jaime from guilt. Later, nearly unhinged from his mounting insanity, Jaime will be apprehended by neo-Fascist forces (absurdly wearing Nazi uniforms) and cruelly tortured—his electrocutions and genital mutilations unflinchingly depicted onscreen. As in Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) or, in the literary world, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the horrors and atrocities of reality are meant to parallel the surreal absurdities on display, suggesting that such oddities are only natural in a skewed world that kills and maims itself indiscriminately.
The existence of God and crises of faith are also prevalent themes, which is hardly surprising considering Jodorowsky’s real-life interest in Zen Buddhism, shamanism, and other mystical beliefs (he’s even pioneered his own religious practice, psychomagic, to allow the unconscious mind to heal psychological wounds). When a nearly starved Jaime is rescued by a carpenter explicitly likened to Jesus Christ, he seems to euphorically discover the splendor of Christian piousness, which he has so aggressively denounced his whole life. Yet a visit to a local church where the adherents are instructed to “jump 26 times to thank our Lord!” also reveals the arbitrary, cultish nature of many organized religions (in Jodorowsky’s estimation). More valuable, perhaps, are the teachings of a magical theosophist whom Alejandro discovers in garish makeup on the beach; he gives Alejandro four necklaces devoted to different religious faiths and instructs him to burn them all down into one sphere representing “a single God.”
Despite The Dance of Reality’s episodic structure, it does have a more propulsive plot than many of Jodorowsky’s films. Indeed, compared to the baroque nightmare imagery of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, The Dance of Reality is relatively straightforward, softening the director’s surrealism into something closer to Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), though I’d argue that Jodorowsky’s reverie is more emotional and complex than Fellini’s solipsistic cartoon. This isn’t to say that Jodorowsky avoids the confrontational imagery that catapulted him to notoriety, as evidenced by a scene in which Jaime mercilessly beats a group of cripples, or in which one character cures another of leprosy by pissing on him. But there is something more fervent and melancholy here than in the bold abstractions of Fando and Lis or El Topo, which lacked the sense of emotional connection so palpably exuded here.
In fact, some of Jodorowsky’s fabricated memories seem tamer than historical actuality, especially as relates to the director’s parents. In real life, his father was viciously abusive to both him and his mother; Alejandro was conceived when Jaime raped his wife, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy that forced Sara to despise her son. The fact that this unpleasant childhood is softened (slightly) by The Dance of Reality suggests the film not as an autobiography but as a fantasy self-portrait, informed as much by desire and regret as by actuality. Clearly Jodorowsky is not making a documentary: by interweaving fact with impassioned fiction, he makes something more affecting and haunting than a memoir dictated by uncomfortable truths.
The Dance of Reality is admittedly a heavily flawed film. Though Jodorowsky claimed to have adopted feminism as a cause around the time of The Holy Mountain’s production, there remains a strain of casual misogyny running throughout his work. Jaime’s brutish treatment of his son and wife is never exactly vilified (at times it’s even treated comedically), and Sara is never defined by anything other than her unwavering loyalty and gigantic breasts. Similarly, a female dwarf with a hunchback (who later becomes infatuated with Jaime) is entirely composed of the simple mother/lover duality by which Jodorowsky seems to view all female characters. More simply, some of the dialogue and almost Brechtian setpieces seem trite and ponderous, as when an adult Alejandro (who sometimes appears onscreen to usher his fictional self through the action) narrates interminably about the “cradle of cement” he finds himself in, or when portraits of Stalin, Ibáñez, and Jaime himself are simultaneously destroyed by Sara on a grandstand acting as some kind of political dais. In moments like this, Jodorowsky replaces the fiery, impulsive nature of surrealism with an overly-calculated pedantry, a weakness which also marred Fando and Lis and El Topo.
But a flawed Jodorowsky film—especially one made 23 years after his last cinematic excursion—is more exciting and awe-inspiring than the majority of movies out there. To date, Santa Sangre (1989) remains his best film, the one moment in which his grotesque surrealism, political outrage, skewed humanity, and visual mastery perfectly coalesced. But The Dance of Reality might be called a distant second-best, an intensely personal self-reckoning that, despite (or maybe even because of) its flaws, reveals the turbulent and mostly irreconcilable nature of any human personality. This small Chilean town, populated by walking skeletons and wizened mystical creatures, takes us somewhere we couldn’t have imagined—not only into a magical Tocopilla, but also into Jodorowsky’s idiosyncratic mind. It’s a ravishing, demented, euphoric, terrifying, confounding place to be.