First published by EyeforFilm
In a sense Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first three feature films – Fando y Lis (1968), El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) – all tell essentially the same story: a man goes on a metaphysical quest for self-knowledge and divine enlightenment through an imperfect world of symbols, delusions and perversions. Yet despite their shared DNA, each cinematic mutation was to prove more monstrously complex than its predecessor, and though El Topo is probably the best known of the three – not least because it was the first film to be embraced by the emerging ‘midnight movie’ circuit – The Holy Mountain represents, in keeping with its title, the very pinnacle of Jodorowsky’s early filmmaking career.
All-encompassing in its themes, and overwhelming in its stylised aesthetics, it is certainly one of the most eye-goggling, awe-inspiring and unapologetically pretentious movies of the last century. Those who like their cinema straight, be warned: The Holy Mountain is not easy climbing.
Jodorowsky sets out his intentions in a programmatic opening sequence. Two elegantly turned-out women face an Alchemist who is dressed all in black. In an elaborately choreographed ritual, he strips the pair of all the trappings of their constructed femininity – their make-up, their clothes, and finally their long blonde hair – until they have been transformed into something altogether more essential, unrecognisable from their earlier incarnation. Although the man’s face is half-hidden behind a giant black hat, he is played by none other than Jodorowsky, taking upon himself the role of a hierophant who chips away at the different layers of the world until the underlying truth has been exposed. He is to be our guide and master on the path from illusion to reality, and The Holy Mountain is to be his mystic text.
After a colourful credit sequence saturated with arcane images and artefacts, the narrative proper – such as it is – kicks in. Covered in flies and lying unconscious in a pool of his own urine, a foolish Thief (played by Horácio Salinas, voiced by Jodorowsky) with a Jesus-like appearance is shaken awake by a crippled man (Basilio González) – and so begins his long and twisted rite of passage, from the lowest depths to the loftiest heights.
The Thief enters the vice-ridden city, where he discovers the attractions of money and the hypocrisy of the institutional Church, before climbing to the top of a giant orange tower where he meets the Alchemist and his assistant the Written Woman (Zamira Saunders), her naked body tattooed with religious glyphs and icons. After several initiation ceremonies, the Thief is introduced to the seven “most powerful people on the planet” – industrialists and politicians who embody all the ills of materialism. The Alchemist offers to lead them, along with the Thief and the Written Woman, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain where they can obtain the gift of divine immortality – but this spiritual journey will end with the revelation of a Grand Truth altogether different from what they (and we) are expecting.
What do the Tarot, the Kaballah, Alchemy, mysticism, Gnosticism, Shamanism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Freemasonry, poetry, economics, idealism, cynicism, political satire, poetry, social commentary, philosophy, theology, history, futurism, surrealism and realism have in common? Well, not much; but The Holy Mountain mixes them all up in a heady blend that is as coherent, or incoherent, as an encyclopaedia of human knowledge, in an absurdly ambitious attempt to expand the viewer’s mind and show life in all its dizzying complexity. Like some mad physicist out to find the Unifying Theory of Everything, Jodorowsky leads a carnivalesque parade where clashing movements and conflicting ideologies are all allowed to dance together to the throbbing of his overstimulated brain. It’s a trip, alright.
Along the way there is plenty of Buñuelian grotesquerie and sacrilege to jar us out of our complacent daze. American tourists blithely photograph local civilians being summarily executed. The Spanish conquest of Mexico is re-enacted by a circus of live chameleons and toads. A fat, middle-aged man impersonates the Madonna. A priest sleeps with an image of Christ. An elderly man places his own eyeball in the hand of a child prostitute. A tumour in the nape of the Thief’s neck is slit open to reveal a large blue octopus residing within. A machine is artificially brought to orgasm and gives birth to a miniature version of itself. A hermaphrodite’s breasts turn into leopards’ heads that spit milk. For here, the monstrous and the worldly always sit side by side with Jodorowsky’s more heavenly, spiritual concerns, as something like order is produced from a chaos of ideas and images – and in the end cinema itself is used as a perfect metaphor for humanity’s general state of distraction.
The result is a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours, free-floating archetypes and picaresque episodes, all packaged to disorient and confound us with its sheer exuberance, before finally bringing us right back to exactly who we are and what it is that we are seeing. It is a film of exquisite beauty, shocking power, delirious intellect and wicked humour. So turn on, tune in, drop out, and see for yourself the ultimate road movie. It may not bring you any closer to God, but it will certainly initiate you into the strange, wonderful cult of Jodorowsky.
© Anton Bitel