In the 1970s, his legendary films El Topo and The Holy Mountain redefined movies as both art and entertainment while changing the face of cinema forever. And in 1989, visionary writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky returned with his modern masterpiece: It is the story of a young circus performer, the crime of passion that shatters his soul, and the macabre journey back to the world of his armless mother, deaf-mute lover, and murder. It is an odyssey of ecstasy and anguish, belief and blasphemy, beauty and madness. It is unlike any movie you have ever seen before; or ever will. Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra and Guy Stockwell star in this epic of surreal genius, now fully restored and featuring more than five hours of exclusive Extras that reveal the mind behind one of the most provocative and unforgettable motion picture experiences of our time.
Santa sangre 7.0
eyelights: Axel Jodorowsky ability to perform two characters at once. the idiosyncratic elements of the script.
eyesores: Adan Jodorowsky’s over-acting. the weak plot development.
“Without me you are nothing. No one sees you and no one notices you.”
When I started exploring Alejandro Jodorowsky’s oeuvre, I read just about everywhere that he had peaked in the ’70s, and that everything since then was of lesser quality. In fact, he has only directed a handful of films since 1973’s ‘The Holy Mountain‘, and most of them have received mixed responses from critics and the public. From what I understood, 1989’s ‘Santa sangre’ was the best of the lot. Unable to purchase the DVD or BD anywhere, I decided to rent it.
‘Santa sangre’ tells the story of a boy who was raised in a circus and who, having witnessed a traumatic event involving both of his parents, ends up institutionalized. Later, as an adult, prompted by thoughts of revenge, he escapes the confines of the hospital and develops a torturous relationship with his cruel mother, who was left infirm and depends on him. Unable to tear himself away from her, controlled by her utterly, he finds himself forced to kill at her whim.
Of the Jodorowsky films I’ve watched, this is the most traditional of the lot. Of course, Jodorowsky’s motion hallucinations are so “out there” that this means very little. ‘Santa sangre’ lands in David Lynch territory more than in the psychedelic spiritual explorations of his earlier works: this one is concerned with crime and mental illness rather than with expanding human consciousness. Add a touch of Dario Argento to the mix and you get an sense of what ‘Santa sangre’ is like.
In fact, it so happens that it was co-written and produced by Dario’s brother, Claudio, who also produced many of the giallo master’s works. It wasn’t until I saw his name at the end credits that I was able to put my finger on the film’s visual quality: although it’s very much a Jodorowsky picture, Argento’s imprint appears all over it. This extends not just to the look of the film (given its low budget limitations), but also to the script, which has a penchant for shock and convenience.
It’s not to say that ‘Santa sangre’ is of poor quality, or even that it’s unpalatable. Hardly. It’s just that it suffers from similar limitations that Argento’s films usually do. Having said that, Jodorowsky’s best films also had their own sets of limitations. What’s interesting is that the weaknesses of both are muted considerably here (What may have happened is that they were offset by each other’s strengths, resulting in a more coherent, if flawed, script).
‘Santa sangre’ is often describe by some as a horror film. This is not at all accurate. Although its core conceit is similar to that of ‘Psycho‘, it provides our protagonist with a detailed backstory and makes no real attempt to scare or gross out its audience. If anything, its primary focus is the psychological fragility of our lead, of his incessant duel of wills with his mother: he loves her and caters to her every whim, but she is impossibly demanding, intolerant and vicious.
Axel Jodorowsky, Alejandro’s son, acquits himself relative well in the role of the older Fenix; he manages to make him sympathetic all the while making him wild-eyed. What’s most impressive is that he is able to play a dual role: Fenix lends his mother his arms, so he is always behind her, talking to her while his arms express what she is saying. To me, this seemed akin to rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time. And yet his performance was flawless.
His younger brother, Adan, however, was bloody awful as the younger Fenix. Well, that’s a bit harsh, I must admit. But the fact remains that he was clearly a non-actor and he delivered an amateurish performance. Thankfully, the rest of the cast was relatively good, if hyperbolic – particularly Blanca Guerra as Concha, Fenix’s mother (one could easily write off the over-acting to her character’s hysteria, however). Anyway, given the budget, one could have done worse.
I think that my key problem with ‘Santa sangre’, for all its script and production issues, is the dubbing: while it’s an Italian-Mexican co-production, it was overdubbed in English. And not just for the DVD, either: this was the filmmakers’ intention, and it was released this way. The problem is that dubbing doesn’t always sound good and, on a budget, it can be really bad. This is a problem with a lot of older Italian motion pictures and it plagues ‘Santa sangre’ as well.
In my estimation, the film’s strength, aside for Axel’s performance, is the hallucinatory quality of much of what is on screen. Between Concha’s zealotry and Fenix’s psychological schism, one never really knows if what we’re seeing is reality or illusion. There are plenty of moments that blur the line and the ending brings it all into question, prompting the audience to review or even re-watch the movie afterwards to decrypt or reassess its imagery.
And, to me, that is a strength: it challenges the audience and gives the film longevity.
Bottom line is that ‘Santa sangre’, although conventional in comparison to Jodorowski’s earlier works, is nonetheless an intriguing motion picture. It’s not nearly as captivating or imaginative, but it still serves up a distinct enough flavour that audiences seeking something off the beaten path will be satisfied. It also doesn’t go so deep into its own madness that it becomes inaccessible. In that sense, it might be the perfect film to introduce someone to this iconic storyteller.
Date of viewing: June 6, 2014