El Topo (The Mole) (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1971)
[originally posted 10Apr2000]
El Topo is a film that’s taken on almost mythical dimensions, thanks to an almost thirty-year-long custody battle between Jodorowsky and the film’s original distribution company that’s kept it out of the public eye almost since its release in 1971 [ed. note 15Aug2013: things were finally settled, and the movie was released in the Western hemisphere on DVD for the first time in 2007]. Thankfully, in 1996, a copy found its way into wide release in Japan, and Republic Video, never one to shirk an idea that will make them a buck, have imported the Japanese release of the movie and started distributing it in the west. So these days, if you get a copy of El Topo, you’ve either got a bootleg or a copy with subtitles in Japanese and blurring over the naughty bits. (One wonders what the Japanese censors envision happening to society if they’re able to see a two-second clip of four men getting spanked.)
As is the way of such things, the inability of the public to see El Topo has elevated it to classic status, and the extremely high quality of Jodorowsky’s more widely-released output (viz. my recent review of Santa Sangre) has churned the waters into an almost fever pitch over the film. As is also the way of such things, it’s next to impossible for any film to live up to that kind of hype, and El Topo is no exception. Yes, it’s a good film, and yes, Jodorowsky fans will enjoy the thick symbolism laced with sex and violence (none of which, as usual, is gratuitous).
More scholarly folk than I will be able to trace the many metaphors of various religions in El Topo‘s quest to destroy the four masters and become the master himself, and his son’s quest to free the beggars in the underground city, but I ended up thinking that El Topo is actually the blueprint for the oft-parodied “art film” that actually makes no sense to anyone. (If you’ve gone to the movies recently, you’ve probably seen the new moviefone.com ad that features the ersatz Polish film “Look at My Potato.” You get the idea.)
Still, the camerawork is fine, what symbolism there is to be deciphered by the rank and file is profound enough for any other three films, it’s got its share of laughs, and it’s worth seeing for all those reasons (and because it’s Jodorowsky). But be cautious when listening to the hype. It’s not the be-all and end-all of filmmaking, as many would have you believe. ** ½
Long-form (~4 min.!) trailer.