El Topo is a movie that wants to be a masterpiece. Using a mysterious gunslinger as protagonist, it sets its sights on nothing less than an accounting for the human condition in all aspects and a survey of human history (at least post-colonial Western Hemispheric history) with respect to its psychosocial undercurrents. It sets out to do this with minimal narrative trappings and maximal surrealist flourishes. Its characters are nakedly archetypal, and its visual style is mainly theatric. Personally, I found the middle third the strongest. Here the narrative has sufficient coherency to support the surrealism and symbolism without assaulting the senses or confusing the attention. The first and last thirds of the film are too incoherent, both in terms of pacing and narrative to function well as a film-viewing experience.
The title refers to the film’s symbol of the mole, and a brief documentary narration at the beginning of the film gives us the Platonic theme that perhaps dominates the film. The mole claws its way out of darkness in search of the light. Only in Jodorowsky’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the seeker is armed and dangerous and beset on all sides by opponents and distractions. The shadows do not merely dance on the walls in this film, they fight back, make demands and are not afraid to philosophize in a way that should give the protagonist a clue as to the futility of much of his use of time and energy on violence and quest-seeking. But it would be a boring film if the protagonist achieved enlightenment too soon.
And the film is certainly not boring. It packs in more provocative imagery than I imagine fills Tarantino’s most feverish dreams at night. It never does so just to shock, though it does do that at times. There is always a reason for the images on screen. Jodorowsky does not allow his subconscious free rein over style here. While the subconscious is Jodorowsky’s prime mover, his intellect remains in firm, final control. Still, the pacing of the film is often maddening and prevented me from appreciating many sequences that no doubt had profound philosophical implications but were presented as mere schlock in terms of editing and staging.
As I said previously, the middle third of the film, comprising a more traditional narrative arc that finds the protagonist seeking out and dueling four master gunslingers represents the film’s most satisfying portion. Here all the aspects of Jodorowsky’s surreal style and philosophic intention seem to be at their most balanced and effective. While he presents us with no shortage of shocking and strange sequences, character relationships are clear and the conflicts focused. I think an excellent film, and probably a masterpiece, could have been made focusing solely on this part of the narrative.
The last third of the film marries Platonic themes with societal and historical critique. There is a literal cave and liberation of its denizens. Jodorowsky subverts the “new marshal in town” motif as the protagonist has become a monk of sorts, though not a celibate one, who sets out to seek aid for the denizens of the aforementioned cave in a town of decadent and materialistically perverse citizens. There are critiques of superstition, religion and social hierarchy. The personal elements—the development of the protagonist’s relationships with his son and wife, for instance—are kind of lost against this sweeping, though small-scale, psychosocial examination. The quiet moments, when the viewer might be able to reflect on what has happened, are not given time to breathe before scenes of chaos, violence and grotesquerie overwhelm them.
The first third of the film encapsulates my overall experience of El Topo. As a whole, it doesn’t work for me, at least not as a work of film, but it is not forgettable or unimaginative, much to the contrary. Surely Jodorowsky’s defining characteristic as a director is his bold vision, and for that I feel compelled to give him my respect. I will remember many scenes from El Topo always. For that reason alone, I recommend seeing it. But the viewer must know that the film, qua film, fails. I would rather advise you to expect to see a series of provocative scenes, functioning admirably on multiple levels, that might make a compelling collection of short films. The sum, alas, is lesser than its parts. While the mole has dug its way into the light of cinema, it appears ill-prepared for its life there.