By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
Has it really been 25 years since maverick Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky last released a film? Such is his ability to burn surreal imagery permanently into my memory, it’s hard to believe he’s been absent for so long. Not that he’s been resting on his laurels of course. The intervening years since The Rainbow Thief (1990) have seen him dabbling in a wide array of cultural pursuits, from theatre to comics. It’s good to have him back in cinemas though as his 2013 autobiographical musical fantasy The Dance of Reality finally gets a UK release. It’s weird, wonderful, and often brilliant, only occasionally overdosing on dreamily mystical imagery across a two hour plus running time.
In pretty much every way it’s a family affair. The story centres on a young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) growing up in Tocopilla with his Jewish-Ukrainian parents: the abusive Communist Jaime (played by Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis), and operatic Sara (Pamela Flores). Brontis’ siblings Adan and Cristobal pop up on screen too, Adan also providing the music. Jodorowsky even appears himself occasionally to offer advice or muse on various dilemmas.
The narrative is split into three sections: the first part follows Alejandro on his adventures around town; the second switches to Jaime as he leaves to track down and assassinate the President of Chile Carlos Ibáñaz del Campo (Bastian Bodenhofer); before the third culminates in Jaime’s attempts to get back to his family. It’s a straightforward skeleton that Jodorowsky spends most of his time dancing away from in surreal interactions, extravagant symbolism and song and dance numbers.
Where else are you going to find anti-Semitism mixing with underground Communist cells, a band of disabled mine workers forced to beg for a living, a man painted the colour of the Chilean flag, Nazis, a beach full of dead fish, a woman urinating on her husband to bring him back to life and a poor boy dying at the hands of a beautiful gift. It’s a wildly ambitious film packed full of enough ideas to fuel ten careers, never mind one story. It’s an explosion of creativity, the personal nature of the material suggesting he’s been mulling this over most of his life.
For all the apparent madness on display, there’s never danger coherency might be lost. Jodorowsky explores a number of themes thoroughly. Perhaps most prominently is his relationship with Jaime, a macho strong man who hits him to test his pain resilience, berates him for growing long hair and worries others might see his son as a homosexual. Authoritarianism also pops up regularly, both on the left and right as Jaime battles the Government while worshipping Stalin, and religion recurs throughout conversations.
This being Jodorowsky, he never takes the understated approach at the expense of flamboyant excess. All the sets looks like charmingly cheap theatre scenery built on top of an obviously modern town. In this world, tidal waves wash thousands of fish ashore much to the delight of local seagulls, Sara sings every word and sound she makes, Jaime fights circus clowns and Alejandro mixes with strange mystics. Costumes in particular appear endearingly cobbled together. It’s mostly conducted with a cheeky grin – Jaime’s assassination attempt proving hilariously difficult to follow-through on – punctuated by bursts of profound sadness, none more so than when a slum outcast takes her own life after the one thing she had going for her is removed.
There can be too much of a good thing. Never ending flights of fancy start to wear eventually, and after Jaime leaves to seek his political destiny, the scenes back in Tocopilla lack energy, serving as placeholders until the patriarch returns. Sara is also side-lined, left with a voice but nothing to say. It’s mainly Jaime in the limelight with Alejandro playing catch-up and Sara nowhere in sight.
Trying to iron out the wrinkles in a Jodorowsky film is Sisyphean task of course. Every time one part straightens out, another curls up again. It’s best to just sit back and let him guide you wherever he finds himself going. The Dance of Reality is not for the fainthearted, but it’s a journey worth taking.
The Dance of Reality was released in cinemas August 21st.