85-year old Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky may have had two midnight-movie sensations during the 1970s with El Topo and The Holy Mountain, but in the decades that followed Jodorowsky sank more into obscurity. This year, however, is already shaping up to be the one that finally brings his work the full recognition it deserves. Two high-profile arthouse films bearing his name premiered at Cannes last year, and they have now both been released here in the states. The first one was Jodorowsky’s Dune, a hagiographic documentary that looked at his failed attempt to make a film version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel back in the 1970s, that not only suggests that his vision would have certainly secured a masterpiece had his Dune been made, but also that his conceptions for the un-made film still proved influential for generations of science-fiction cinema. It’s a documentary that’s proved highly satisfying towards it’s audience, but of even more portent, Jodorowsky has also finally completed a new film, coming nearly 25 years after his last picture. Written, directed, and produced by Jodorowsky, The Dance of Reality feels every bit his creation, just like all his features, although it holds a key element too it that alone might set it as his absolute pinnacle: passion.
Described as an auto-biography, The Dance of Reality is a mix of both fact and fantasy. We’re introduced to a young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits), who is caught up between two worlds, that of spirituality and art catalyzed through his superstitious mother Sara (played by opera singer Pamela Singer, who recites all her lines of dialogues as sung arias), to the reality of harsh politics forced on him by his brutally disciplinary father Jaimie (played by Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis, in a casting move that’s both Freudian and obvious). We see the young boy interact with a whole calvacade of colorful characters in his hometown of Tocopilla, gathering musings on philosophy and spiritual guidance that will dictate into becoming the man he is now.
About half-way through the picture (about an hour after countless anachronisms, grotesque imagery, and bizarre designs) my viewing partner began to chuckle, and then he whispered to me, “I don’t see how any of this could be true.” The Dance of Reality isn’t trying to be an auto-biography in the conventional sense, but it’s always been through the arena of metaphor that Jodorowsky has emerged most victorious. While describing the film, Jodorowsky said, “The story of my life is a constant effort to expand the imagination and its limitations, to capture its therapeutic and transformative potential.”
In true Jodorowsky form, the movie touches on a plethora of themes, through imagery that ranges from the beautiful, to the grotesque, to the comical, yet none of it feels out of place for the film’s organic world. The young Alejandro encounters issues of religion (meeting a friendly shaman), sex (being ridiculed by his peers for having an oddly shaped penis), and death (witnessing a firefighter burned alive), which are all reoccurring motifs in all his films. The contemporary Jodorowsky does indeed narrate the film, and will often appear in the film to embrace his younger self, or let the viewers understand when life experiences were most pivotal for him. It’s deep shit for sure, but Jodorowsky remains a very funny man after all these decades, and he injects the film with his idiosyncratic humor that’s often as ribald as it is playful. While there’s rarely much need to bring up acting in Jodorowsky’s films, it acknowledgeable that Pamela Flores plays a particularly brave role, performing in some of the film’s most scatological scenes (one of which is shot in a way that you know could not have been simulated).
The Dance of Realty is by no means a tightly wound film, and in fact its flaws are also parallel to those that were in his previous films. In a format that’s actually very similar to El Topo, halfway through the film the plot’s focus drastically shifts from focusing on the young Alejandro’s childhood, to that of his father and his objective to assassinate General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo. The transition is hardly smooth, and the ebb-and-flow of the first half seems substituted for a messy narrative that’s often meandering. Jodorowsky though has shown time and time again that he’s not interested in adhering to the typical regulations for dramatic arcs though, and instead capitalizes on film’s potential as an art-form rather than simply an avenue for visual story-telling, and the film’s second half is perhaps even more allegorical. While it can be frustrating to sit through this plot-shift during the first viewing, in retrospect it’s just as easy to see it as necessary. For better or worse, Jaime seems to be the central cause for the path Jodorowsky went down, and it’s only fitting now that he share such a personal tome with his son. We see Jaimie depicted as a brute initially, and then as a buffoon, and finally as a sufferer, which may ultimately work as the form of redemption that Jodorowsky always wanted his father to achieve.
Will Jodorowsky go down as a ground-breaking artist for his medium, or will scholars ultimately look back at him as just a bizarre yet fascinating curio? Only time will tell, but if The Dance of Reality does indeed turn out to be his swan song, then he can rest easy knowing that he’s cap-stonned with his most personal and heart-felt film. After struggling for decades with aggressive politics of the film industry, Jodorowsky was finally able to make another film and entirely through donations, with no intention of making any of it back. It’s a film that his fans will cheer, while outsiders will likely shun, but it’s inner beauty, personal weight, and artistry are all there to make the film an astounding success in what matters.