This was the first Alejandro Jodorowsky film I’d seen. Let me just say–it won’t be the last.
Young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) lives in the Chilean village of Tocopilla with his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky) and mother Sara (Pamela Flores). Jaime is obsessed with masculinity, toughness, and strength, and seeks to toughen up his son by beating him, forcing him to fight other children, making him undergo dental surgery without anesthetic, and cutting his flowing blond hair–an act which devastates Sara, since her late, beloved father had the same golden locks. Alejandro and his family are ostracized because of their Judaism (although his father is a communist and atheist), and, shunned by his peers, he contemplates suicide, but his older self (played by Jodorowsky) stops him, reminding him that “all that you will become is in you now”.
Jaime hatches a plot to assassinate the fascistic ruler of Chile, General Ibáñez (Bastián Bodenhöfer), and goes with one of his co-conspirators to Santiago, where they attempt to shoot him during a dog show. Jaime inadvertently foils the plot, and when Ibáñez offers to reward him, he asks to be made groom to Ibáñez’s beloved horse, Bucephalus. He allows Bucephalus to feed on poisonous flowers, but when Ibáñez is lured out to the stables, Jaime finds himself unable to shoot him, and the oblivious Ibáñez takes his gun and puts the horse out of its misery. Dazed, his fingers now paralyzed in curls, he wanders off.
Meanwhile, Alejandro and Sara become close again, and she encourages him to embrace her mystical worldview (which his father had rejected), including a way of making oneself effectively invisible. Alejandro fears that Jaime will never return, and Sara has him speak a message to him into a stone, which she attaches to balloons and sends sailing away. The stone crashes on the floor of a shack where the amnesiac, destitute Jaime has been living. Setting off to find his family, he is taken in by a kindly old carpenter, Don Jose, and helps him sand chairs for a church, a task which he finds rewarding.
Accompanying Don Jose to a prayer meeting, Jaime is moved by the spirit of the worshippers, and when he Don Jose suddenly dies, he gives away all the money he has to pay for his funeral. Later, he sees a parade of Chilean Nazis, and when he is berated for mocking the Nazi salute (his fingers are still curled), he beats all the Nazis and demands their commander bless the memory of Don Jose. Arrested by government agents, he is tortured and interrogated, since Don Jose is assumed to be a Communist leader. He is ultimately saved by an uprising and conveyed home, where Sara and Alejandro embrace him.
Sara has him face three portraits: Stalin (whose picture had hung in Jaime’s shop), Ibáñez, and himself. Realizing that in behaving like a tyrant he is no better than the man he hated or the man he idolized, he shoots his portrait, and the three pictures go up in flames. The family, now spiritually re-united, symbolically leaves Tocopilla, and the adult Jodorowsky sails into a white void.
Is it too easy to just say that I loved this film? Because I did. It’s incredible from start to finish, from the opening when Jodorowsky describes money in religious terms while “Sing, Sing, Sing” swings on the soundtrack, to the final shot of the tugboat disappearing into the void. When your biggest issue with a film is that it feels a little too much like The Tree of Life (there are definite parallels, but they’re also very different), you’ve got a pretty damn good movie on your hands.
I love films that feel rich, that encompass a great variety of moods, styles, colors, and characters. I love films that feel like feasts. And this is just such a film, one which encompasses so much and does it all so well. At 130 minutes, it’s not brief, but Jodorowsky stuffs so much into it that I never felt the slightest bit bored. And a little research into Jodorowsky’s biography only adds to one’s scope of thought on this remarkable work (more on that shortly).
It’s a very funny film. Early on, Jaime takes a radio which is broadcasting news about the 1929 Wall Street crash, sticks it in the toilet, and pointedly urinates on it. Jaime’s store (a lingerie shop called “Casa Ukraina”, in reference to the family’s origins) has a little person out in front, a man who advertises the store in various outrageous ways–flogging a toy dollar sign, claiming the store’s prices are “miracles” and “turning” water into wine, etc. Jaime’s co-conspirator, before killing himself, quips, “I don’t want to live in a world of dog shows.” These are just a few of the delightfully absurd gems Jodorowsky sprinkles throughout.
It’s a poignant film. The sufferings of young Alejandro, especially his lack of friends, are fairly universal and sympathetic. His father’s harshness and his mother’s coldness sadden as much as their subsequent softenings touch. Jaime is seemingly a cruel, bitter man, but as portrayed here, he realizes that Sara is right–the man “who cries and weeps” is the true man. And Sara herself is a pillar of strength, a loving woman whose view of the world ultimately redeems her family. For all the weirdness on display, you never stop caring about these characters. And when a crowd of mutilated ex-miners is driven off, literally being taken to the garbage dump, it’s an effective commentary on our treatment of the handicapped.
And when we find Jaime living in a shack, having lost his memory, he’s living with a little person, a woman who had been rejected by society and who regarded him as the most important thing in her life. Accepting that he must return to his old life, she bids him farewell, then hangs herself. In just a few short moments, Jodorowsky creates a microtragedy, of the “it couldn’t be helped” variety. Her tragic goodness is set alongside that of Don Jose, a man who truly embodies Christian virtue in his generosity and rejection of pretension. These kindnesses are what reawaken Jaime’s sense of humanity.
It’s a magical film. Steeped in the Latin American magical realist tradition, The Dance of Reality fittingly starts in a circus, where Jaime once performed, where the various clowns and strongmen gather around young Alejandro, terrifying him (to his father’s disgust). There is the character of the Theosophist (Cristobal (Axel) Jodorowsky), a mystic who lives on the docks and who tells Alejandro to melt a cross, a Star of David, and a star-and-crescent down into one mass, distilling from these three faiths “the good that unites them all”.
And Sara is the most magical character of all, curing Jaime of the plague (which he was exposed to during an attempt to help the sick–an inkling of the goodness within?) by…well, by urinating on him. And it works. Later, when Alejandro cannot sleep because he is afraid of the dark, she takes some kind of tar and paints him black (and no, there’s no racial commentary intended here), telling him that he now “belongs to the darkness” and must capture a “princess so white”, whereupon she removes her nightgown and he chases her, ultimately painting her black as well. Some may find the sequence disturbing, but Jodorowsky implies nothing unhealthy about it.
Jodorowsky’s direction is perfectly in tune with his writing; it’s vivid, colorful, heartfelt, and imaginative, and I was engaged from start to finish. I can hardly judge it as anything other than a triumph. Even his on-screen appearances add to the film’s power, although I can understand one finding his presence a little unsettling (his manner of embracing his younger self is just “off” enough to make one notice, though I don’t think anything was intended here).
If it were just Jodorowsky’s imaginative filmmaking, this would be delightful, but the acting is what pushes it into the realm of greatness. Brontis Jodorowsky is absolutely incredible as Jaime, playing every step of his considerable emotional journey–from domestic tyrant, to revolutionary, to vagabond, to his redemptive rebirth–perfectly on point. He’s never less than convincing at any point, and when he suffers, he inspires considerable pathos. Probably he’ll never come close to an Oscar (or anything else) for this, which is truly a shame. So much of the film rides on his back (in many ways, it’s his story more than Alejandro’s), and he pulls it off so magnificently.
And Pamela Flores as Sara is aces as well. She sings all of her dialogue, a potentially pretentious touch which works perfectly because of her warm, earthy nature. Though the first third of the film does not portray her in the most flattering light (her rejection of Alejandro especially), as her mystical, magical side is allowed to blossom, she becomes positively radiant. Flores does not allow Sara to become a grotesque or an empty symbol, but makes a lovely human being out of her. It’s another performance that will likely go unappreciated, and that is just tragic.
As the young Alejandro, Jeremias Herskovits isn’t up to the standard that his on-screen parents set, but he does fine. The supporting cast is fine–Bastian Bodenhöfer’s blithely arrogant Ibáñez is amusing–but they generally take a backseat to Brontis (the director’s son) and Flores.
Visually, it’s an appealing film, nicely shot by Jean-Marie Dreujou, well designed by Jodorowsky, and boasting colorful costumes by Pascale Montadon-Jodorowsky (relation to the director unknown). Interestingly, possibly because of its low budget, the settings and costumes often blur time periods; though the film ostensibly takes place in the 30s, modern-day clothes and details often creep in, adding to the fluid nature of the film’s reality.
Reading up on Jodorowsky’s family background (as described on Wikipedia–TW sexual assault), it’s clear that his actual childhood was much darker than what we see here. His father was even more cruel and abusive than the Jaime of the film, and his mother was less than affectionate towards him (though not without cause), while he had a sister who apparently tried to monopolize their parents’ attention–no sister appears in the film.
Is this part of the “dance of reality”? The desire to re-invent one’s past, one’s unhappy childhood, as a story of love and redemption? It is not unreasonable. I did not know the facts before seeing the film and was enchanted by it. Knowing them, I only understand better what Jodorowsky’s intentions in making it may have been.
At 84, 55 years after his first film and 45 years after his first feature, Alejandro Jodorowsky has taken his childhood and remixed into an incredibly beautiful film, one which (barring a tide of absolute stunners) will go down for me as one of the year’s best. There’s so much more I could say about it, so rich a film as it is, but I will let you discover the rest for yourself. If you have a chance to see it, for God’s sake, take it. I’m sure you won’t regret it.