“Why did that old man’s breasts turn into mountain lion heads?”
This is a question I never thought I would ask. But then I watched Alejandro Jodorowski’s surrealist extravaganza, “The Holy Mountain” with my friend Frank.
“Spoilers” abound below, but the film is so full of madness I don’t mention that I don’t think it matters.
There is no way to coherently explain this film. The first impulse is to liken it to an LSD trip, but this does not go far enough, merely conjuring imaginings of trippy color swirls and talking reptiles. No, “The Holy Mountain” is much more than that. No matter how bizzare a scene gets, one can sense a definite intent behind it all, though what that intent may be is often anyone’s guess.
|Maybe he's going for a James Bond intro feel here?|
Even before watching the film, I had a sense that Alejandro Jodorowski was a prima donna. The elitist narration in the trailer and its repeated use of a shot that zooms into the director / actor’s face made this fairly clear. And then there’s the fact that the film opens with chanting of the lineage of Buddhist teachers. Jodorowsky's name appears on the screen exactly as the chant says "Shakyamuni", which refers to Siddhartha Guatama, commonly known as "the" Buddha. It’s also worth noting that Jodorowski does not play the Theif (a Christ figure character) in the film, but that character’s teacher and father figure. This degree of god complex made me legitimately wonder if he found some homeless oompa-loompa and severed his hands and feet because a little person wasn’t sufficiently surreal to be the Theif’s companion.
|I mean, seriously - there can’t be that many appendage-less little people in the world, and this film has two.|
So what exactly is going on in this movie? A Christ figure wanders through fascist Mexico, meets a spiritual teacher, that teacher then attracts powerful industrialists and politicians with the promise of eternal life, but his true goal is to make them reach enlightenment. For the first third of the film, the only dialogue is unintelligible grunts and babble, causing Frank to wonder if this film was the inspiration for the language of “The Sims.”
|People you meet at church|
The next third of the film introduces seven powerful and wicked characters and lays on the satire with a trowel, addressing themes of vanity, wrath, greed, lust, propaganda, and oppression. Ironically at this point, the bizarreness of the film’s first act has left one’s mind working so hard to dissect all the symbolism that the 2nd act feels clumsy. Suddenly we're bombarded by dialogue as each character narrates his or her sequence, frequently committing the narrative sin of telling rather than showing (or telling when the imagery has achieved all the necessary showing for us). Meanwhile, the satire is often so extreme that it becomes more amusing than thought provoking. Fortunately, the imagery remains sufficiently vibrant and strange to keep one entertained. And who can argue with gems of dialogue such as, “Your sacrifice completes my sanctuary of one thousand testicles”?
The film’s final act chronicles the spiritual journey of these individuals, a journey both symbolic and literal. It was during the literal portion of this journey that the film finally broke me. As the cast clung to a rockface during their ascent of the titular Holy Mountain, a woman cries out that she can go no farther. In exactly the tone as one might shout, “Hang on, you can make it,” her savior commands, “Rub your clitoris upon the mountain!” Apparently she proceeds to hump the rockface and is thus rejuvenated. I don’t know because I was too busy falling from the couch in uncontrollable laughter.
The film’s conclusion is rather anticlimactic, but then, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination, and “The Holy Mountain” is certainly one hell of a trip. It is by far the most surreal piece of cinema I’ve seen. While often confounding, its tone is significantly brighter than other surreal films like "Eraserhead" or "The City of Lost Children", and for me, that makes it more enjoyable. I’d only recommend viewing it if you’re in the mood to see something truly bizarre, and also to do so with a friend, as half the pleasure of watching the film is sharing in others’ reactions to it.