Synopsis: Banned in Mexico, a permanent cause celebre, surrealist “fabulador” Alejandro Jodorowsky unique career began with this bizarre tale of corrupted innocence, sadomasochistic love and unattainable paradise. Created from hazy memories of the controversial Fernando Arrabal play he staged in Paris, Jodorowsky’s sublime freak-out follows impotent Fando (Sergio Kleiner) and his paraplegic sweetheart Lis (Diana Mariscal) searching for the enchanting city of Tar where spiritual ecstasy resides. The astonishing road trip takes them through urban rubble, scalding deserts, treacherous mountains, their own pasts and close encounters of the weirdest kind in Jodorowsky’s seminal, signature work of startling provocation and incendiary art.
Fando y Lis 7.5
eyelights: its surrealistic quality. the unusual characters.
eyesores: its slight incoherence. its shoddy technical quality.
“To Tar… To Tar… so close and yet so far”
‘Fando y Lis’ is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first feature film. Released in 1968, it was so controversial that it caused riots, put Jodorowsky’s life in danger, was banned in its country of origin, Mexico, and almost had the director deported. Even in the United States, when it was shown, it was only made available in an excised version that was 13 minutes shorter – and was widely panned anyway.
Based on a play by Fernando Arrabal, the film revolves around two lovers, Fando and Lis, who are on a quest to find the fabled city of Tar, which is the only city to not have crumbled in “the final war”. When you get there, you will know eternity, understand life and find ecstasy, it is said. As they wander the desolate landscape, Fando and Lis meet all sorts of peculiar people.
Years ago I’d been told that I should watch Jodorowsky’s films. A friend of mine had even pushed upon me copies of his three earliest films, ‘Fando y Lis’, ‘El topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’. I kept them on my radar but, despite seeing his films in many of the shops I patronize, it wasn’t until I found the Jodorowsky DVD boxed set, that I began to take the notion seriously.
Even then, given how many delectable morsels I have on my overfilled plate at all times, it remained on the back-burner. Until I went to see ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune‘, that is: this was the catalyst for finally going through this boxed set. Captivated by Jodorowsky, by his storytelling ability, by his enthusiasm, I suddenly felt compelled to explore his works once and for all.
I knew, based on what I’d seen in ‘Midnight Movies‘ and what I’d heard in ‘Dune’, that it was going to be quite the journey, but I wasn’t quite ready for it. In fact, the first time I tried to sit down to watch ‘Fando y Lis’, I soon realized that it was going to be far more abstract than I had anticipated. I stopped within five minutes and decided to start over from scratch later.
It turns out that, for all the disjointed moments at the beginning of the film and its overall surrealist quality, it’s not so hard to follow after all – at least retroactively. As you watch ‘Fando y Lis’, many of the scenes don’t seem to have any purpose and don’t fit in coherently, but it later becomes far clearer as you realize what they meant and what their connection to the rest was.
For instance, right at the onset, there’s a scene with a little girl who is seemingly abused by a bunch of people in a theatre, but we have no idea who she is and how she connects to the picture. We eventually come to realize that it’s Lis. How it pertains to her current state remains absolutely unclear, however, but at least it’s not just a disjointed bit that makes no sense whatsoever.
Similarly, there’s a terrific sequence in which a teenaged boy and a man spar intellectually. The man starts by saying that he’s a famous pianist. The boy tells him he’ll cut off his arm and asks him what he’ll do next. The man takes on the challenge and tells him he’d become a painter. The boy tells him he’ll cut his other arm off. What will he do next? They continue until the boy concedes victory.
We have no idea who these people are, as it’s not established in any way whatsoever. As with the Lis sequence, we assume that it’s some unrelated moment because the film thus far is all over the map. Adding to that impression is the fact that neither the boy or the man actually speak; there’s a voice over but their lips never move. We assume that it’s surrealist and could never guess that it’s Fando and his father.
That’s part of the problem with ‘Fando y Lis’: the storytelling is rather poor, but it’s mixed with plenty of surrealism on top of that. To make matters worse, it was made on no budget, which you can tell from the technical qualities of the picture; they’ve really had to make do. So much of what is on screen must be the result of limited means, not of intent. So it makes for quite a jumbled final product.
And yet, it nonetheless remains a fascinating picture.
I have to admit that I have a penchant for surrealism, however, so I suppose that anyone who dislikes psychedelia and abstract works would likely find this tedious. I, on the other hand, enjoy the works of David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Michel Gondry, Jan Švankmajer, Terry Gilliam, amongst others. So it’s natural I thrive on watching something as nonsensical as ‘Fando y Lis’, despite its weaknesses.
There’s a self-conscious, maybe even pretentious, artsy quality to the picture, but I enjoy it. I love the verbose and somewhat ridiculous narration, which provides a fable-like quality to the story. I love the credits that feature all sorts of centuries old drawings of a fantastical or religious nature. I love the weird inserts that don’t seem have any purpose narratively and even the weird sound effects.
But, most of all, I love the short episodes in which Fando and Lis either meet strange new wanderers or have some peculiar interaction or conflict. It must be said, the pair are already fairly unusual:
- Fando is prone to all sorts of mood swings, from sudden elation to anger, and is abusive to Lis in one moment and then loving to her in the next. He both hates her and is entirely devoted to her, even carrying her on his back (sideways, like a cross) when needed. He’s not the heroic type. And his one belonging? A beloved drum.
- Lis, meanwhile, is paraplegic and must be dragged around on an old cart. She is depressive half of the time, which is hardly surprising given that she cannot do anything for herself and exists in a world that is reduced to rubble – which is hardly making it easy on her. Her only earthly belongings? A gramophone and a doll.
Their first interaction with other people is in a demolished city. Amidst the rubble, there are couples dancing, a man playing a burning piano (it’s amusing to see, because it looks like the actor is trying to take his hand away from the burning instrument, but is compelled to keep playing), that sort of thing. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Fando and Lis as he drags her around through this strange devastation.
They eventually wander about the wilderness, meet a crazy priest who runs about and shouts, lusty men and women in a mud pond, elderly women taking turns embracing a much younger male plaything, younger women who carry and haul bowling balls, wandering transvestites who dress up the pair in drag, a blind man whose father takes blood from Lis and drinks it (the effect is quite realistic, it must be said).
There’s also this comical sequence in which Fando and Lis go to a cemetery and then lay on tombs in various positions. But it’s not all fun and games: Fando can be quite abusive to Lis, can be mentally cruel to her, or even chain her to the cart. At one point, he even strips her naked and, using his drum, draws strangers to have them kiss and caress her. And when they leave, due to something he says, he blames her.
‘Fando y Lis’ doesn’t end especially well, but it’s hardly surprising given our protagonists and their quest. In an otherwise grim, desperate, attempt to escape their current reality, there’s very little redemption to be found. But the film has plenty of redeeming value, if one is willing to be receptive to its madness. It’s not for all audiences, that’s for sure, but it’s an unforgettable journey.
One that I felt was certainly worth taking. And will take again.
Date of viewing: May 5, 2014