By Reggie Peralta
Over the past 8 years that The Frida Cinema has been active, several filmmakers have arisen as favorites among our audience. Names like David Lynch and Hayao Miyazaki are reliable draws at our theater, but the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky have to be some of the most eccentric to ever grace our screens. A Chilean director with a background in theatre and various spiritual practices, Jodorowsky has always had a penchant for provoking viewers: in fact, his very first feature, Fando y Lis, caused riots over its blasphemous content at its Mexican premiere. His most notorious film, however, is The Holy Mountain, a recurring favorite at The Frida that will be coming back round on March 18th. Stirring shock and outrage at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, the movie is an experimental stew of Jodorowsky’s esotericism, timely sociopolitical commentary, and a loose, LSD-inspired narrative. As such, it’s difficult to evaluate The Holy Mountain in comparison to conventional films like The Godfather or Citizen Kane: to judge it based on traditional criteria like the structure of the plot or the way the actors perform their roles is to miss the point entirely.
Indeed, the real star of the movie is the avant-garde imagery that Jodorowsky concocts. A sensuous blend of carnivalesque costume as well as religious and occult symbolism, the film makes liberal use of Hebrew glyphs, biblical allusions, and Tarot motifs in its quest for enlightenment. What precisely these symbols all mean is anyone’s guess, but chances are that even the least spiritually-attuned won’t have any trouble understanding other, decidedly more-earthy images like naked couples writhing on the floor, characters collecting their own excrement, and an elderly man pulling a glass eye out of his socket to give it to a child sex worker. Such a juxtaposition of the sacred with the salacious and sickening is bound to provoke strong reactions, and understandably so. However, it also calls to mind the work of Ken Russell, whose similarly provocative The Devils engendered comparable controversy two years before Holy Mountain’s release. Russell may have been a British Roman Catholic and Jodorowsky - in brief - an atheist mystic of Jewish descent, but it’s fascinating that these two men of such dissimilar backgrounds and experiences could arrive at roughly the same place through their art.
On a more subtle but no less impressive level, Jodorowsky proves to have just as much aptitude for working behind the camera as he does devising bizarre images to place in front of it.
On a more subtle but no less impressive level, Jodorowsky proves to have just as much aptitude for working behind the camera as he does devising bizarre images to place in front of it. He uses a wide palette of shot types to focus attention and convey scale, whether it be intense close-ups on soldiers goring themselves on bayonets or stunning long shots of the thief slowly walking across a vast, rainbow-colored room. Jodorowsky seems particularly fond of overhead shots, framing scenes in various chambers from high vantage points as if God or the Universe itself were looking down upon these earthly proceedings. An especially inventive example occurs when the Alchemist declares that tarot will teach the thief “to create a soul,” with the camera spinning around wildly and dazzling viewers with its kinetic energy.
While not as outlandish or immediately attention-grabbing as the visuals, Jodorowsky and collaborators Don Cherry and Ronald Frangipane’s soundtrack draws from an eclectic range of music to score scenes of varying mood and tone. From the very 60s-sounding brass and rolling percussion of the psychedelic rock pieces to the morose horn and somber classical guitar heard in slower, more Latin-inspired tracks, the score is a diverse tableau peppered with textures and influences that traverse the world as well as the emotional spectrum. The most memorable composition, however, is likely the one that opens the film. With chiming gong and percussion, monotone monk chanting, and rumbling throat singing, it’s a hypnotic piece that suggests Eastern mysticism and hidden knowledge, which well suits the mysterious tea ceremony and ritual that the black-clad Alchemist and two women in white partake in a curious, intricately-patterned room.
The first 20 minutes or so of the film seem to be Jodorowsky’s comment on the social and political climate of Mexico at the time. The country’s adopted faith, Christianity, makes its presence and power felt through the plentiful crucifixes cast from the thief’s Christ-like visage, while characters like a gibbering priest who is caught sleeping with one such crucifix indicate the hypocritical silliness that Jodorowsky sees in the religion. Society is visually stratified into suited gentry, sombrero-wearing peasants, and gas mask-garbed soldiers, who shoot helpless civilians in a vivid re-imagination of the massacre of protestors by the Mexican army in Tlateco, Mexico City just five years before. But the film reaches even further back with “The Conquest of Mexico,” a colorful recreation of the Spanish destruction and colonization of the Aztec Empire. With horned lizards playing the part of the Aztecs and frogs filling in for Cortes and his conquistadors, it’s a ferociously farcical display that serves as a comic counterpoint to the bloody, sordid history being relayed to the audience.
What follows is a more sprawling, less focused series of episodes and events but — beneath the surface-level surrealism and grotesquerie — one can see the film attempt to engage with the big questions of not just 20th century Mexico but modern civilization. Coming in the wake of the 60s, the movie’s targets are a predictable who’s who of counterculture bugaboos such as consumerism, the technocratic state, and pretentious art trends. While it’s not surprising that Jodorowsky would aim to skewer such familiar evils, it is surprising how salient or even ahead of its time the topics were presented. For instance, the Mars segment appears to have anticipated the increasingly common practice of wokewashing, with its depiction of a lesbian arms dealer who boasts of employing male subordinates as secretaries and selling themed weapons that cater to specific religious communities like “Buddhists, Jews, and Christians”. What may have just been far-fetched satire in Jodorowsky’s day is official military-industrial complex strategy today, with defense contractors like Raytheon directing employees to “identify their privilege” and even the CIA releasing recruitment videos that tout their operatives’ intersectional identities. “Real life awaits us” declares the Alchemist at the end of the film, but what a reality we live in when corporate and government policy reads like a twisted parody of The Holy Mountain.
This movie, it should go without saying, is likely to be difficult viewing for many. Its esoteric content (to say nothing of the free-flowing narrative) will probably leave many unschooled in those arts scratching their head in confusion, while the over-the-top sexuality and violence is liable to turn off viewers who care for neither. But if the audience can see the humorous absurdity in the onscreen carnality and allow themselves to embrace the experience of Jodorowsky’s singularly strange vision, then they may very well find that there is magic like no other in The Holy Mountain.
A Santa Ana native, Reggie Peralta's writing has been featured on HonorSociety.org, The Frida Cinema, and The Grindhouse Cinema Database.
You can reserve tickets for The Holy Mountain on The Frida Cinema website!
#OffThePage is taking pitches via email and paying contributing writers. Our Arts & Culture column was initially founded by local journalist Gabriel San Román, who is now a featured writer at Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.