The Dance of Reality
Written and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
One of cinema’s great mythmakers, Alejandro Jodorowsky returned to his home town of Tocopilla to make The Dance of Reality, his first film in almost a quarter of a century. It presents a typically surreal account of his childhood and his father’s exploits in the turbulent political landscape of 1930s Chile, but it has particular resonance as it sheds light on the genesis of the ideas that shaped his career in film. The mythology that runs through El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre is on display here, but, rather than forming part of a wholly fictional narrative, it is explicitly presented as Jodorowsky’s conceptualisation of his own ancestral past.
Central to the legend is his cruel father Jaime, played with great enthusiasm by Jodorowsky’s eldest son Brontis, who has come a long way since making his acting debut as Son of El Topo in 1970. An atheist and a communist, Jaime idolises Stalin and pisses on a radio because Chilean president Ibañez is speaking on it. He forces the young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) to go through trials of extreme pain to prove his manhood and denounces any hint of spirituality in his son. At times, it is even necessary for the adult Jodorowsky to appear and provide his younger self with esoteric guidance.
The other central figure in the Tocopilla sequences is Alejandro’s mother Sara (Pamela Flores), an absurdly buxom woman who sings every line in an operatic style. She stands in complete contrast to Jaime, as her ridiculous proportions and exaggerated femininity emphatically express her desire to nurture her son. There is a wonderful isolated scene in the film’s second half that shows her dancing naked with Alejandro while he coats her in inky black paint. She fades into the darkness so that he will no longer fear it and teaches him to become invisible before those who will not accept him. Moments like this are touching, not least for the elements of truth shining from behind the illusion.
In the meantime, Jaime has grown frustrated with the political situation at home and decides he must assassinate Ibañez, or at least his favourite horse. He sets out from Tocopilla to do so and, while undertaking a brief apprenticeship as the president’s groom, cripples his hands trying to fire the bullet that would have killed him. Now a disfigured outcast, he embarks on a spiritual journey that sees him become a symbol of impoverished Chile and taken prisoner by a band of Nazis.
Although the location is brought to life beautifully, the first act of The Dance of Reality lacks a consistent spark; however, the second is vintage Jodorowsky. His mystical-political vision and compassion for suffering take centre stage, while, in the profusion of habitual and arbitrary violence, there are hints at the existentialism of his classic films. It is also here that he becomes most self-referential – it is flooded with symbols and images from his other works, especially El Topo and The Holy Mountain, which encapsulate his personal mythology more than any of the others.
The torture scenes are brutal and difficult to watch, but you get the impression that Jodorowsky is trying to redeem his father through these fictional struggles. Whether or not he created the image of the monster, he inflated it in his films and books, as well as in the stories he passed down to his sons. He is acutely aware of the redemptive power of suffering and makes this a prominent feature in all his films. The disfigurement that Jaime endures appears to be an act of God that takes him back to his family. Along the way, he learns humility and is forced to throw in his lot with the poor and disenfranchised. And finally, he is stripped of his political delusions, learning that there is no difference between himself, Ibañez and Stalin.
The Dance of Reality is shot on digital video as opposed to film, which gives it a different look to his earlier body of work. Some of the scenes appear flat, particularly in the early stages, and, while it is only used sparingly, the CGI is always distracting. It seems ridiculous and more than a little shameful that a director who has contributed so much to cinema cannot command a larger budget, but if that is the price he has to pay to have full control over what he is doing, then it is certainly worth it. Even at the age of 84, he has produced something triumphant, witty and idiosyncratic that not only works in its own right but gives us a valuable insight into everything that went before.
The Dance of Reality screened at the Glasgow Film Festival 2014, with Brontis Jodorowsky in attendance. Visit the official website here.