EL TOPO (1970)
Directed by: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky
My second review of Jodorowsky! And trust me, I’ll review La Montaña Sagrada too, but I need all my strength for that one…
Now some of you guys may be wondering why I’m reviewing Jodorowsky’s films in anachronic order. After all, I reviewed first Santa Sangre, which is one of his last films, yet now I’m reviewing El Topo, which is his first famous film, and later I’m reviewing La Montaña Sagrada, which is immediately after. Well, there IS an order to these films: it is order of WEIRDNESS. Jodorowsky is nothing if not abstract, and El Topo was definitely a sign of things to come. As weird and symbolic as Santa Sangre was, it was actually Jodorowsky’s most mainstream, least confusing film. El Topo is NOT mainstream, by any means, and while it doesn’t yet reach the true potential for weirdness Jodorowsky has, it’s a very abstract and symbolic film, heavy in imagery and religious undertones.
El Topo starts with the title character riding in the middle of the desert with his son. He gives him a toy and a picture of the child’s mother, and tells him to bury them in the sand. This symbolizes(get ready to read that word a lot in this review) burying his childhood and walking towards adulthood, a rite of passage. Immediately the beginning credits start, and we listen to a narrator telling us about the source of the gunslinger’s title:
“The mole(el topo) is an animal that digs tunnels under the ground. In search of the sun, it sometimes comes to the surface. When it sees the sun, it is blinded.”
That opening narration sets the tone for the entire film: a quest for enlightenment which leads to its protagonist’s doom. It is the tale of a Byronic hero, proud and confident in his abilities, who is brought down by his own hubris and tries to look for enlightenment as a way to put his life back together.
El Topo’s first adventure is to avenge the slaughter of a village by bandits. After saving the villagers, he is tempted by a woman from the village into taking her as his woman and leaving his son behind, his first act of selfishness and a step towards his eventual fall. The woman is delighted to be El Topo’s woman, but shows immense selfishness. While in an oasis, she drinks from it and remarks it is bitter. El Topo then stirs the water with a tree branch and tells the story of how the people of Israel, dying of thirst, begged Moses to find water, and when he did it was bitter. The bitter water they called Marah. El Topo and the woman then drink from the oasis which is now sweet water, and El Topo declares he will call the woman Marah, for she is like bitter water. Unknown to El Topo, this title would be completely appropriate, as will be shown later in the film.
El Topo teaches Marah ways to survive in the desert, how to find food and water. During this scene, he shows he is a highly spiritual being: he entrusts God to provide and he finds sustenance. Marah, meanwhile, finds nothing, and does nothing but complain. Eventually, El Topo attacks Marah, stripping her naked, as if peeling away her doubts and lack of faith, and she finally manages to find food and water by herself. He has gifted her with wisdom. He is a master of sorts, and Marah a less than enthusiastic student. However, Marah is not satisfied: she asks El Topo if he loves her, to which he answers yes, but she replies that he does not love him, for he needs to be the best. She then tells him that, in the desert, there are four masters of the gun, and that El Topo needs to defeat them to be the best. She becomes a tempter, leading El Topo to try to reach beyond his grasp.
This is one of the best parts of the film: El Topo on his quest to defeat the gun masters. While he does so, a mysterious gunwoman(with a man’s voice, it’s that kind of movie) follows El Topo an Marah from afar. Each of the masters is a philosopher, using the gun as a tool for spiritual enlightenment. The first master has learned to not be hurt by bullets by letting them go through him without offering resistance. The second master is dedicated to his mother to the point he is empty from desire, and as such can wiled he gun with amazing precision. The third master has a handcrafted gun he made himself which can only fire one bullet, but it’s all he needs, for he always aims true for the heart. The fourth master has nothing, craves nothing, cares for nothing, so he has nothing be taken from him. As he fights the masters, the gunwoman starts to seduce Marah, but she rejects her seductions… at first…
El Topo, one by one, defeats the masters. However, he does not beat the masters at their own game: they all remain superior to him, since Marah tempts El Topo into killing them all through trickery. In so doing, he learns nothing, he wins nothing, he masters nothing. With each “victory” he slowly starts to succumb to despair, until the last master finally breaks him. He becomes a shadow of a man, consumed by the despair. It is then that the biggest injustice is struck: the gunwoman confronts El Topo, and in his broken state he is no match for her. He is shot down, and abandoned by Marah. He has lost everything.
Decades later, El Topo awakens in a cave. He realizes he’s been tended for years by the people of the cave, deformed folk whom the world shuns because of their deformities. They are trapped in the cave, for the opening cannot be reach by them with their faulty limbs. El Topo then decides he will repay their kindness by going to the nearby village and working to open a tunnel and letting the cave folk free. With the midget woman who tended to him, he goes to the village as a clown, trying to earn money for the project.
The townspeople are decadent, impious folk, and a priest in the town fights fiercely to lead them away from heathen ways. He eventually meets face to face with El Topo… and they both realize in horror who each other are, for the priest is El Topo’s son, whom he abandoned so many years ago…
El Topo is one of those movies that demand attention to every detail, for it has many stories to tell. It is full of simile and analogy. It is full of religious imagery and symbolism, especially Christian and Buddhist. It is a metaphor for the search for enlightenment: it shows a man stripped of everything, only for him to look to the spiritual for meaning. All this makes for a VERY trippy movie. DO NOT expect a traditional Western with loads of gunslinging action and daring do, since there’s NOTHING resembling that in the film. In fact, the movie’s genre as a Western is practically incidental to the plot: you could have replaced gunslinging with swordfighting and the set it in Ancient China and pretty much nothing would be lost.
This, however, is one of the movie’s strengths: it uses the filmic language of the Western to tell a story about spiritual enlightenment and Buddhist themes and make it more accessible, and it works. El Topo’s quest for mastery lets us see how a man can be brought low by his own ambition if he is without the patience and wisdom to reach his goals in the correct way. These are timeless themes, and this makes the movie(which was released in 1970) age remarkably well.
The movie is superbly shot and scored. Jodorowsky has a great eye for frame composition, leading to some very impressive set pieces. The movie is acted very well, too. Jodorowsky himself as El Topo is a fascinating character. Beginning the movie, you’d think he’s gonna be a John ford-style Western hero, what with his avenging the slaughtered village and raining karmic vengeance on the thieves. But then, he abandons his own child and takes the woman. And he shows his spiritual side with the “miracles” he performs in the desert. Then you realized he has virtues, but is also deeply flawed, and that getting rid of those flaws will be the labor of a lifetime, quite literally. All the other actors perform well as well, with the actress playing the midget woman and the one playing El Topo’s adult son putting in very emotive performances. The four masters are great characters of the aloof Zen master-type, and Marah and the gunwoman also perform great as seductive beings which lead the hero astray.
I really love El Topo, it’s a great film. I am usually adverse to arthouse fare, since many of those types of movies force you to do your homework outside of the films to understand them, and that to me is a crime. A film should always stand by its own merits, not make you look in Wikipedia to understand what the hell you just saw. El Topo doesn’t fall into that trap. While it has Buddhist themes, you don’t need to know about Buddhism to understand its message. The plot may be abstract sometimes, but it’s not confusing, with the abstraction serving to give it a magical feel. This was my first Jodorowsky film, and I truly believe I couldn’t have been introduced to him better.