in conjunction with severin films' much anticipated release of alejandro jodorowsky's santa sangre (1989) on dvd, the alamo drafthouse held a special screening of the film tonight and it was every bit the hallucinatory abattoir that was expected.
the film opens with our protagonist, fenix, having been institutionalized for a number of years. as a young boy he traveled with the circus del gringo as the boy magician in the troupe. his mother, concha, was an aerialist and devoted the rest of her time to the zealous worship of an armless girl whom she had proclaimed a saint. his father was a philandering knife-thrower whose erotic performances, in the center ring and out, with the tattooed lady enraged the wife. she caught him in flagrante delicto, somewhere between the battle of waterloo and the wreck of the hesperus.
it didn't go well. the wife doused the husband's offending extremity with acid and, in return, he pinned her to the bullseye and cut both her arms off. he then stumbled - naked, bleeding, and with the smoldering crater where his penis used to be - back toward the circus where he slit his own throat and fell amidst the scavenging feral dogs that wandered the city at night. guess who had a front row seat for this carnage. that's right. li'l fenix. to top it off, the tattooed lady scooped up alma, her deaf-mute mime stepdaughter and fenix's crush, and hustled off into the night. in one violent burst, fenix was left with nothing - his family completely, quite literally destroyed and his only love spirited away into the night. you can't blame a kid for taking an extended mental vacation in the wake of this. at least, i can't.
the asylum has its diversions, to say the least. a field trip to the movies with a group of young men with down syndrome takes an unexpected turn when a pimp that is the jodorowsky equivalent of honest john foulfellow in pinocchio (1940) waylays them in the lobby and takes them to a pleasure island rife with cocaine and tranny prostitutes. waking rejuvenated after this pivotal evening's events, fenix hears his mother calling to him from the window, escapes and is reunited with her. reunited may not be a strong enough word. fused may be more like it. he becomes her arms and their cabaret act is a sensation but the toll it takes on the population of women that fenix might be interested in certainly doesn't boost attendance. the silent and saintly alma returns, acting as intercessor between fenix and his demons until mother tries to show her the door.
a brief synopsis like this really can't do it justice. i am leaving a number of important and bizarre details out - the elephant funeral, the boa constrictor in the pants, whitewashing corpses, the hilarious product placement atop the apothecary van. tip of the iceberg. this thing is a cacophonous riot of ripe symbolism, grotesque sexuality and explosive violence, all unique to the fevered brain of one man. jodorowsky is one of the handful of filmmakers whose work you have to approach on its own terms. all those things you know about how a film should work? throw them away. this is such an idiosyncratic collision of sex, death and the church that you only have the lexicon it generates in its two hours to go on. it is so intensely personal (jodorowsky's sons play the lead at different ages, adding just one more psychological strand to unravel) that it seems written in a language only one man truly understands. that shouldn't dissuade you from digging into it, though. it is a most rewarding puzzle.
the church doesn't fare so well in jodorowsky's universe. an initial clash between concha and a monsignor over the destruction of her temple serves as just the first of many instances that underscore the fine line between faith and fanaticism. both figures have flocks they are administering to and both are rigid and inflexible, each possessed of a righteousness that cannot make room for the other's needs, resulting in the eradication of concha's holy place. her zeal almost results in her destruction as well, were it not for her love of her son. the ugly patriarchy wins the battle for this small piece of land and maternity and devotion to a holy ideal loses. the gender identity/sexuality issues at play in this are almost beyond belief, again requiring your viewing, as my descriptions would fall woefully short. even if we completely ignored the "son becomes part of the mother" angle, there is a never-ending parade of sexually nebulous hookers, luchadores and circus folk that confound all of your senses. the mother-son relationship? working your way through that entitles you to a spot on the medal stand at the oedipal olympics. fenix even none too subtly claws at his own eyes at one point toward the end of the film. alma's return as the mute harlequin angel makes me think of nothing so much as how it is only in retrospect that we can sometimes distinguish between what is salvation and what is merely temptation. she offers freedom and release but, by the time she finds fenix again, it is only from one purgatory into another. the angel arrived too late and there must be atonement and, as concha so pointedly puts it, "you can't atone for your sins with nightmares".
i could write about it here until my arms fall off but that wouldn't help you all that much. what i really want to do is just encourage you to see the film. it is not academic, not an exercise. it is visceral. it is something you must experience to get the full impact. it demands to be seen. it came along for me once twenty years ago at a crucial time in the development of my appreciation of film and performed a crucial function. it is a landmark film for me because it was one of the first things i ever saw that was so off the rails. it was one of the first cinematic experiences i had that so thoroughly demonstrated that, this time, there is no map for where we're going and one of my first encounters with a genuine auteur. there is truly nothing else like it and, while it is flawed, i can't tell you how encouraging it was for me, as a young man, to find it. it was like uncharted territory. i felt like the cinematic equivalent of lewis and clark and you guys know what a great feeling that is. now, here it comes again twenty years later to do that for someone else and to remind me to keep finding those boundaries and pushing past them.
the severin dvd release of this will be available on tuesday 1.25.11. it's also packed with over five hours of extras. it's so great to see this beautiful, perplexing film finally getting the treatment it deserves. watch it with your mom!