First published by EyeforFilm
For surrealist filmmakers, creating a public riot used to be the equivalent of trashing a hotel room for today’s rock stars – a necessary rite of passage to announce your credentials as a scandalous outsider who holds society’s conventional values in contempt. Luís Buñuel and Salvador Dali did it with their bourgeois-baiting collaborations Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Ãge d’Or (1930) – and so violent was the response of the audience when Alejandro Jodorowsky’s feature debut Fando y Lis had its 1968 premiere at the Acapulco Film Festival that the Chilean-born director had to leave the screening hidden in the bottom of a car for his own safety.
Needless to say, such notoriety helped Jodorowsky ascend to his place in the pantheon of avant garde film artists, some two years before his god-like status would be secured by the release of cult favourite El Topo (1970) onto the emerging midnight movie circuit. So, mission accomplished, then – even if Fando y Lis has rarely screened anywhere since. And perhaps it is as a calling card that Fando y Lis is best viewed – for while it already portrays the kind of metaphysical questing, exaggerated archetypes and psychedelic imagery that would come to dominate most of Jodorowsky’s subsequent films, it is also the work of a director who, much like his troubled protagonist, has yet to reach full maturity.
In the urban ruins and desert landscapes of a post-apocalyptic world, Fando (Sergio Kleiner) pushes a cart bearing his paralysed lover Lis (Diana Mariscal), in search of the mythical land of Tar which Fando’s father had described to him as a boy, and where he hopes that Lis will be miraculously cured of her affliction. But before they can ever get there, Fando will encounter all manner of seduction, corruption and monstrosity, realising too late who he really is and what he truly loves in life.
Basing Fando y Lis on his imperfect memory of an absurdist play by fellow Panic Movement founder Fernando Arrabel, Jodorowsky has used this traveller’s tale to allegorise the sadomasochism and dependency that underlie any sexual relationship, while also crafting a parable of the tortuous path that leads the soul to self-discovery and freedom. Despite the title, this is really the story of Fando alone, in all his abusive narcissism, with Lis merely there to take the blows of his childish, cruel and often violent personality as it tries to find its full form, shaking off the shackles placed there by mummy and daddy.
The lovers’ picaresque journey in Fando y Lis plays out like a guided tour of perversions and grotesquerie, where paedophilia, desecration, a lecherous Pope (played by a woman, Tamara Garina), mud-bathing zombies, libidinous grannies, ball-breaking bluestockings, vampiric mendicants, an army of trannies, matricide, bondage, rape, murder and cannibalism are the order of the day. Yet while it is not difficult to see why Fando y Lis caused such a stir in the conservative Mexico of the late Sixties, in our own jaded times the film is more likely to bemuse than to shock. And, unlike in Jodorowsky’s later, longer works, here the parade of oddballs, freaks and degenerates never seems to have much drive or direction. Fando y Lis is a genuine curiosity piece – but one that drags more than it grips.
In open acknowledgement of his debt to the carnivalesque spirit of Fellini, Jodorowsky has modelled Lis’ short-cropped hair-do and doe-eyed demeanour on Giulietta Masina, the Italian maestro’s wife and muse. Fellini himself would return the compliment with allusions to images from Fando y Lis in his Satyricon (1969) and City of Women (1980). Still, the greatest influence on Fando y Lis would appear to be Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end (1967), from which Jodorowsky has borrowed not only his film’s apocalyptic ambience, but also the use of jarring jumpcuts. It all feels exactly like what it is: an ingenious novice trying to find his own feet by blending the wilder stylistic experiments of his predecessors. This does not mean that Fando y Lis is a failure – rather it represents the difficult birth pangs of a future genius, and in its symbologies and images one can discern in outline the architecture of his later, better efforts.