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A monumental achievement of philosophy, mysticism and surrealist satire.
on 9 August 2007
The Holy Mountain was director Alejandro Jodorowsky's follow up to the cult western El Topo; a violent and deeply mystical dream play about a mythical gunfighter cleansing himself of the violence of his past, only to find that the world itself had already been corrupted by the bloodshed of the present.
The mystical themes are fleshed out even further with The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky's second of only three films produced in the 1970's, which, much like the preceding El Topo and the director's very first film, Fando é Lis, unfolds through a series of surrealist vignettes rife with religion symbolism, sardonic satire and distancing cinematic shock tactics. To some, it remains a monumental achievement of philosophy, mysticism and surrealist satire; a film capable of changing the viewer's entire perspective on life itself through the wisdom of its central character and the potency of its imagery. To others however, the film has already become a dated relic, with some viewers arguing that extravagant pop-art production design, casual nudity and notions of questing for inner peace and tranquillity have become throwbacks to the late 1960's flower-power aesthetic; which is always easy to discredit through blind cynicism.
How will you react to it? I couldn't possibly say, though I would say it's best to approach the film with an open mind and with some familiarity with Jodorowsky's previous, and indeed, subsequent cinematic works, like El Topo, and in particular Santa Sangre, both of which offer an easier gateway into the filmmaker's heavily symbolic world than this epic rumination on life and the cosmos.
What surprised me most when viewing the film for the first time was the tremendous amount of depth that can often be lost within the giddy barrage of sights and sounds that burst from the screen in a vibrant vivid collage of philosophy, art, sex and religion. As a result, I often find it annoying when people discredit Jodorowsky as simply throwing images on the screen to shock and disarm the viewer for no apparent reason. I find similar arguments regarding the work of filmmakers like David Lynch and Miike Takashi similarly offensive. Simply listen to the audio commentary on this DVD to hear Jodorowsky taking the film apart image by image; explaining the incredible amount of minor details purged from every religion, steeped in every form of art and combined in an attempt to overload the audience's senses and perceptions to effectively change the very fabric of their own personal universe. It worked for me, though as you can possibly gather from the previous reviews, opinions are mixed.
Some will be more open to Jodorowsky's ideas than others. Some will enjoy the colourful scenarios of the opening 30 minutes, which depict the resurrection of a Christ-like character and his corruption by the modern world ravaged by war, dictatorship, organised tourism and the endless pursuit of money. The second half of the film introduces us to the other characters; a collection of evil, greedy business men, weapon designers, factory owners and foot-soldiers who, much like the Christ-like character we meet during the first chapter, decide to abandon the corrupt world in which they exist and quest with the mythical central character to the summit of the holy mountain.
As you can imagine from this sketchy plot outline, what follows is fairly episodic in design, sometimes tapping into the cinematic absurdity of Luis Bunuel and at other times reminding me of the epic opulence of early Ken Russell (in particular, films like The Devils, The Music Lovers, The Boyfriend, Mahler, etc). For the most part though, the film is pure Jodorowsky, with the central character (played by the director himself) tapping into the intensity of El Topo's iconic gunfighter, whilst the constant barrage of cripples, dwarfs, freaks and geeks cut adrift against a processions of skinned lamb carcasses, edible Jesus effigies, dog fights and the recreation of the conquest of Mexico, re-enacted with frogs that are later blown to pieces, all recalling the fevered insanity of El Topo, the warped fairytale-like quality of Fando and Lis, the gothic psychodrama of Santa Sangre and the empathetic compassion of Tusk.
Obviously, it's not going to be a film for everyone, but those already turned on to Jodorowsky's ideas will no doubt take away a great deal from the film's central message, and from the dizzying kaleidoscope of visual ideas, interpretations and sight gags that explode from the screen in a veritable barrage of colour and movement. The Tartan DVD features some fine extra features, most notably Jodorowsky's informative and fascinating audio commentary, while also doing a fairly great - if not quite perfect - job of re-mastering a film that has remained in the vaults for well over thirty years.