Cinema has proven to be a theatrical stage for French-Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Every film that he directed has been a performance, wherein, like absurdist theatre, the viewers lose themselves in the chaotic psyches of his actors; and still struggle to steal their thoughts back from the symbolic imagery in his films. Jodorowsky doesn’t screen his films, he exhibits them.
We all know the classic Jodorowsky, El Topo and its protagonist’s quest for enlightenment through processes of spiritual reincarnation; but there is another film that Jodorowsky has written in the magnum opus of his alchemical works in cinema. Santa Sangre (1989), a Mexican-Italian avant-garde and acid western film, is a nihilistic odyssey through the carnival of traumas of its male lead, played by Jodorowsky’s son Axel. The film starts with naked Felix (Axel Jodorowsky) sitting in a tree in the room of a mental asylum, while nurses bring out food to coax him down. Through a flashback of forty minutes, we are then shown the series of events that led Felix to his psychological doom.
Jodorowsky in writing and directing Santa Sangre shows no mercy to social conventions. Sin is epitomised as the tragic flaw; and one can almost always feel the instinctive hatred and conflict between characters representing lust and chastity, which are both seen as perversions in a world without a sane middle way. Rape, seduction, genital mutilation, child torture, obsession of religious cult, blood baths (literally and metaphorically), autistic drug addicts, a funeral for an elephant and other grotesque scenes occupy every minute of the film.
And in fact, imagery like this can’t be anything new for the artist who crucified chickens and slaughtered goats for a staged performance in Paris. Through his work Jodorowsky makes it very clear that he wants a reaction; in Santa Sangre he wants his audience to quietly and slowly slip into the insanity of Felix, who loses his body and mind in becoming the hands of murder for an unsatisfied mother. Since murder is the driving force of the film, and blood the vital fluid, red happens to be the loudest colour throughout. The music has been effortlessly picked from the streets of Mexico, whether it be a fiesta, or a Mexican gypsy singing her solitude at four in the morning on a broken guitar.
If one was to classify Santa Sangre as a great horror film, what separates it from the other clichés of this genre in cinema is that in Santa Sangre Jodorowsky doesn’t celebrate evil, but challenges it. Fenix, who has lost his soul to his father’s carnival of cruelty and mother’s fanaticism, is brought back to sanity by the help of a deaf girl and a dwarf. But it would be insulting, to Jodorowsky, to categorise his work among such genre labels as ‘horror’. Jodorowsky’s films are enriched with values stolen from the darkest and deepest corners of art and poetry. This is not something you can watch once and understand.
Image: Mainline Pictures