Synopsis: The scandal of the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s flood of sacrilegious imagery and existential symbolism is a spiritual quest for enlightenment pitting illusion against truth. The Alchemist (Jodorowsky) assembles together a group of people from all walks of life to represent planets in the solar system. The occult adept’s intention is to put his recruits through strange mystical rites and divest them of their worldly baggage before embarking on a trip to Lotus Island. There they ascend the Holy Mountain to displace immortal gods who secretly rule the universe.
eyelights: its symbolistic/surrealistic tendencies. its eye-popping visuals. its distinctive soundtrack. the socio-political commentary. the sheer ambition of the production.
eyesores: the inscrutability of the first third of the picture. its cultish quality.
“You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.”
‘The Holy Mountain’ is an abstract adventure by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Loosely based on “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel” by St. John of the Cross and “Mt. Analogue” by Rene Daumal, it tells the story of Christ-like figure who is convinced to join an Alchemist and seven others on a quest to find and take the place of nine immortals residing on top of a mountain.
It’s a psychedelic journey that could only have been put together in the ’70s, when quests for spiritual awakening led thousands to join cults, and when disenchantment with the status quo led some to join revolutionaries. The film itself manifests very similar concerns and expresses them in a semi-coherent, visceral and aurally-exciting fashion.
It is said that Jodorowsky had at the time followed the tutelage of a Zen master and then lived for a month communally with the principal cast to prepare for the film. Upon the recommendation of his master, he also took LSD to explore his spirituality. He also had his cast smoke mushrooms for a key scene of the picture.
Needless to say, ‘The Holy Mountain’ wouldn’t get made today – or, at least not in this way.
A motion picture like this would be cost-prohibitive today, with the large casts, massive sets, location filming, …etc. It’s an extremely ambitious film, and it was at the time budgeted to be the most expensive film ever made in Mexico. Amazingly, Jodorowsky made it for half the original amount. How did they do these things in the ’70s? Crazy!
It’s hard to explain ‘The Holy Mountain’, given that much of it is not plot-based, but is experiential. It’s one of those films you probably have to watch stoned, and it’s certainly a surreal experience when sober (as I am/was/forever will be). The plot is simple, but the journey isn’t and I could barely make sense of the first act, as it was a jumble of images.
It begins with the image of a temple in which two beautiful women are being stripped of their earthly beauty by a priestess in a ceremony that totally sets the stage. Then it shows us dozens of naked boys, a severely handicapped man, and a Christ-like figure lying on the ground with flies all over his face. This man is identified as The Fool by a Tarot card.
The Fool was originally supposed to be played by George Harrison. He, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were fans of Jodorowsky’s work and helped finance or promote it. Harrison only backed out because Jodorowsky wouldn’t bend on all the nudity in the picture, not even for the scene in which The Fool is bathed and his backside is shown in prominence.
After The Fool wakes up and swats the flies away from his face, he goes off to the city, where we are shown a truck full of slaughtered, naked children, people walking around with crucified, skinned sheep/goats, and masked soldiers killing civilians and raping women. It’s a chaotic scene that shows a society in total turmoil.
Then there is a a strange circus doing a show in the public square, featuring toads and lizards dressed as soldiers, priests, …etc., on an elaborate set. There are a lot of shots of this spectacle, as our Christ-like figure crawls about, croaking wildly. The scene ends with the explosive destruction of the mini circus (honestly, I wondered about the poor creatures).
The Fool passes by a shop with “Christs for sale”. The shopkeepers are dressed like Roman soldiers. Our hero picks up a cross and carries it for short while. Then he passes out from drinking with the shopkeepers, and they make a mould of him, crucified. When he wakes up, he’s surrounded by reproductions of himself. In a rage, he destroys many of them.
Then a dozen or so prostitutes, including a senior citizen and a young girl, cross paths with The Fool. One of them, a beautiful girl who carries an ape on her back, becomes fascinated with him and decides to follow him. The others come along. I wondered if she wasn’t supposed to represent Mary Magdelene. This was unclear and was never demystified.
The Fool ends up at a market, where there is a tall rectangular tower. A large fish hook comes down from a small entrance at the top and he gets astride it and, in a long shot, is pulled up to the top. He uses his legs to feign climbing up. It’s quite a sight and I wondered if they used a stuntman for this obviously dangerous shot.
The Fool finds himself in a rainbow-coloured room populated by a camel and a naked, tattooed African woman. There is a sort of throne at the end of the room, and a man with long white hair, dressed all in white, sits on it, between two pillars and two goats. The Fool attacks him with a dagger, but the man freezes him and cuts open a sore on his neck, pulling out an octopus.
After being unfrozen, this Alchemist asks The Fool if he wants gold. When he answers “yes”, he is taken to a pristine white, palatial bathroom with a hippo in it and bathes him. Then he puts him in a glass case and makes him inhale the smoke from a process that makes gold out of his feces. He shows him the gold and tells him he can make a soul.
We are introduced to seven others, all representing a planet: Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. They’re all wealthy and/or powerful/influential people. These introductions are all like short, surrealist films, and the combined whole is pretty lengthy, pretty much amounting to the second act of the picture.
It shows the power that these people have in shaping society.
The most notable are Saturn, who makes war toys for children, consulting with government official to plan out their future political goals and making toys to prepare generations of children to future wars and conflicts (For instance, if they plan to someday invade Peru, she makes comics where the villain is peruvian). It’s generational brainwashing, basically.
The other is Pluto, an architect who boldly states that people don’t need homes, only shelters. He is slowly moulding society towards that aim, with the ultimate goal of having people live in coffin-shaped boxed, in rows, living for the most part in their workplaces, where they would get their meals and use the bathrooms. It’s very dystopic, but hardly unrealistic, stuff.
The Alchemist gathers all of them and tells about the Holy Mountain, on top of which nine immortals live. He convinces them that they may be rich and/or powerful, but immortality will always elude them unless they form a collective and assault this mountain – with the ultimate goal of taking the place of these nine others.
Convinced, he has them burn all of their money, and also effigies of themselves, to symbolically separate them from their former selves. Then, dressed simply, they go on a cultish spiritual quest. They eventually arrive at an island that claims to hold the holy mountain – but the people there offer distractions and false prophets, so they leave.
As they journey towards the mountain, each of them is shorn of their hair and faces his/her own inner desires or demons one final time. When they are finally led to the immortals, The Alchemist tells them that they should cut his head off, as they no longer need a master, after which they should go and take the place of the immortals.
The Fool has been having a hard time following their path, of relinquishing his desires and former self. He is still followed by the prostitute and her ape, who always remain in the distance, a few steps behind them. Eventually, The Alchemist tells him to forget the mountain: he should reach eternity through love, and should unite with the woman.
After he leaves, we are taken to the summit, where The Alchemist reappears, breaking the fourth wall. As the group attempt to take the immortals’ place, he tells them that they are in a movie: “Real life awaits us”. I’m not exactly sure what Jodorowsky meant by it. Was he instructing his audience to turn their backs on cinematic fantasies, to go live their lives?
And that’s part of the problem with ‘The Holy Mountain’: it is oft-times inscrutable. But it’s also part of its beauty. It makes us wonder about its meaning, and forces us to scrutinize every image and message that it offers. It’s not an easy, spoon-fed journey, and we are all the better for it. There is nothing better than making part of that journey ourselves.
At the very least, it’s a fantastic motion picture experience. It’s exactly what cinema can achieve: to take us to another headspace and a different world. Rare are the films that seek to do this and actually achieve it. It does it not just in its script but with stunning visuals and soundtrack – which is quite eclectic, a real feast.
Oh, sure, ‘The Holy Mountain’ is self-indulgent. But as far as self-indulgent oeuvres go, it’s one of the best – at least it’s not of the Michael Bay variety. It’s a philosophical and spiritual picture; it seeks to expand its audience’s awareness, not numb it to shit. It’s also a meditation, maybe even a criticism, of religion.
After seeing ‘The Holy Mountain’, I understand why Jodorowsky had planned to make ‘Dune‘ and didn’t care if it became a ten-hour film; somehow, he was able to get these things made. I also get why he was giving a spiritual twist to ‘Dune’: this type of messianic quality pervades all the pictures that he made during this era.
I am a fan. I may not be on a spiritual quest and I don’t use mind-altering substances, but Jodorowsky’s motion pictures take me to incredible worlds that no other filmmaker has taken me to before. It’s not all comprehensible to me, but it teases my brain (And my senses: his films are a sight to behold) in a way that is quite satisfying.
‘The Holy Mountain’ is Jodorowsky’s summit.
Date of viewing: May 17, 2014