Shot nine years after his previous feature, the ill-received Tusk, Chilean mad-maverick Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre traces two decade of artistic reflection back to his earliest works- the kind that drew the backing of the then-broken Beatles and singularly started the Midnight Movie phenomenon. Flash-forward to now and the world is at war with drugs. The Berlin Wall is three short years from keeling over and Jodorowsky finally has carte-blanche to summon another maniac-monk epic. What he did, and what he discovered, would shape his creative career forever.
Baffling as they could be, El Topo and The Holy Mountain existed in the main entirely in an accepted construct. The kaleidoscopic bravura of untamed creativity coloured in expressive theme and impassioned personality were both arresting and utterly at home in their respective worlds. Santa Sangre was the first of Jodorowsky’s films to directly call into question the reality of his own surreality and while it is as strange as ever, there is a pulse of pain beating through the eclectic, this time: Irradiating the ludicrous with macabre savagery and twisting wacky characters into dimly lit dark-carnival sewers where even the open streets are unsafe in the presence of all-too human terrors. The mysticism of the past, comfortably contagious in the old west and alchemic societies, is paved over by man.
No sequence better exemplifies this impressionistic touch of self-reflection than the funeral of the elephant: As desolately cruel and effectively excessive a moment as the man has ever shot. What The Holy Mountain might have cast in Cheshire-grin satire, like the boundlessly bizarre conquest of the new world as enacted by a cast of exploding lizards and toads, Santa Sangre sees as a baroque dirge- the short sucker-punch of sudden death that lingers on, and on, from elaborate zooms that alienate, instead of bring us close, exuberant procession and finally a senseless rush of barbaric horror that is faced by the characters with the same disbelief as we feel- the towering audience to a creation too brutal to bear- ever-forced to comment and try and cash some currency of growth from its trauma.
It is in this early scene Santa Sangre defines itself as Jodorowsky’s subtlest work: A piece that is not only commenting on the nature of provocative ‘art’ but also implicating its own director’s vision as messy, perhaps even misplaced. Each passing freak-out of tonal opacity air-drops a legion of further complications and ideas that their audience are directly forced to wrestle with. Surely, Alejandro Jodorowsky has proven he is an intelligent enough film-maker to weave meaning and visceral emotion into every image but Santa Sangre’s disarming aesthetic- settling in viewers for the overwhelming depth and power of his kinetic 1973 masterpiece- deftly plays on this expectation to sheathe a far more primal, wicked spark comparable to the diabolical deserts of El Topo.
Here, some things are not to be explained. This world is by far the most real of his main-stay feature films and yet it is also the most irrational. And I wonder when the dust settles on the corpses, the carnage, and the magic of it all if Jodorowsky was asking himself, as much as appealing to us, what the point really was? Why painting in a rainbow of creativity still means his work has always been drenched in blood and human pain. Santa Sangre is the most personal of Jodorowsky’s early films, and more recently he has returned to taking a direct look back on his life, perhaps because that is more comfortable to confront, instead of stumble upon. It must be horrifying, as an artist, to dig through a pit of the most senseless savagery and spite in search of meaning- and find yourself.