El Topo (1970)

Review #1,395

Director:  Alejandro Jodorowsky 
Cast:  Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, José Legarreta
Plot:  A mysterious black-clad gunfighter wanders a mystical Western landscape encountering multiple bizarre characters.

Genre:  Drama / Western
Awards:  -
Runtime:  125min
Rating:  M18 for mature content
Source:  Abkco

“You are seven years old.  You are a man.  Bury your first toy and your mother's picture.”

Although Alejandro Jodorowsky made waves of controversy with his debut feature Fando and Lis (1968), it was only in 1970 with El Topo that he broke out as one of the medium’s most bizarre filmmakers, and then cementing his early reputation three years later as a cult director with The Holy Mountain

After the shattering disappointment of not being able to make ‘Dune’, the subject of the fascinating Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), one would have to wait till 1989 for Santa Sangre for a Jodorowsky-esque film.  Bookending Santa Sangre were two inconsequential movies—Tusk (1980) and The Rainbow Thief (1990).  He would make a better-late-than-never comeback after more than two decades with The Dance of Reality (2013) and Endless Poetry (2016).

El Topo, the film that left John Lennon raving madly about, is one of the progenitors of the ‘midnight movie’, sparking the phenomenon that would later see such works as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Eraserhead (1977) embracing a similar reckoning.  Often considered a counter-cultural Western, or even labelled as an acid Western, Jodorowsky takes familiar iconography associated with the genre, and spins a surreal tale of shocking violence and mystical themes. 

Opening with a gunfighter on a horse, played by Jodorowsky himself, together with his bare-bodied son (literally his very own son) who tags along with him, the film sees the duo encountering a series of strange lawless fighters, all wielding some sense of false authority. 

El Topo is a picture of two parts—the story of the aforementioned God-like gunfighter who dishes out his brand of vengeance, and years later, in a peculiar turn of events, becomes sympathetic to the cause of an underground community of maimed dwarves.  The two-parter story doesn’t quite work coherently, with the second half operating as a Jodorowsky-meets-Tati scenario of dark slapstick humour, but what is consistent are the themes of perversion of religion, race and power dynamics. 

Fuelled by Christian allegories and Eastern religious symbolisms, El Topo is a wild concoction of ideas related to self-enlightenment and redemption, though in the director’s outlandish, even aberrant, world, there is no surprise that the path it takes is both taboo and disturbing.  It is not a particularly great film, but it is certainly one of the most important cult films in history.

Verdict:  Jodorowsky’s breakthrough film is one of the progenitors of the ‘midnight movie’ phenomenon, and has since become one of the most important cult films in history.


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