The Dance of Reality is Alejandro Jodorowsky's first film in 23 years and a significant departure from the vibrant, violent, and visually driven surrealism of El Topo, the endlessly striking absurdity of The Holy Mountain, or the fervent, carnivalesque spirit of Santa Sangre. Rather than upping the ante in terms of gonzo grotesqueries, Jodorowsky opts for a more subdued, explicitly autobiographical, though still heavily fantasized, tale of his childhood in Tocopilla, Chile.
Little Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) is chided by his father, Jamie (Brontis Jodorowsky), for being too much like a girl; protected by his mother, Sara (Pamela Flores); and edified by a community of political and cultural outliers that bandy about the city with an often jarring intensity befitting Jodorowsky's Odyssean narrative form. While these elements outwardly seem a perfect template for Jodorowsky's more unabashed visual interests, little manifests by way of visceral or affected surrealism on the order of film form. Instead, Jodorowsky's retreat into nostalgia and feigned introspection is more in line with Amarcord, that intolerable, solipsistic Fellini trifle that's often mistaken as satirizing, rather than valorizing, a carnivalesque sense of communal forlorn.
In fact, The Dance of Reality contains not a single image or moment as gloriously off-kilter or passionate as at least a dozen from Jodorowsky's previous films. The filmmaker forsakes visual prowess and experimentation for more neutered flourishes of lament, which include Jodorowsky himself often appearing behind little Alejandro and delivering statements like “being in a cradle of cement, swaddled in a gigantic shadow, bound to my empty existence, trapped in this island of flesh, searching for myself in memories, and meeting no one.” These Herzogian moments, with Jodorowsky literally becoming the subject of his own film, are misplaced in a film that should insist less on authorial presence and winking allusions to celebratory cinephilia than imbricating political strife as symbiotic with personal, artisanal cultivation.
The recent Jodorowsky's Dune is as infectious and enlivening as it is because of Jodorowsky's on-screen jubilation for creation, for his refusing to resign his excitement for innovation even at his advanced age. That film's function as a paean to the director's oeuvre and persona is allowed because it's devised and expressed through director Frank Pavich's outsider perspective, no matter how admiring. In The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky never manages to transcend the sense that he's indulging himself and participating in a hollow introspection unworthy of his prior cinema; it's as if his re-emergent celebrity within the documentary spills over here.
Which isn't to say the film is wholly without interest. When narrative focus shifts to Jamie, his lengthy interactions with an old man and a horse named Bucephalus yield the kind of askew, vociferous empathy found in Santa Sangre . Likewise, reappearing images of Joseph Stalin and Carlos Ibáñez del Campo allow Jodorowsky recourse to engage his potential personal-is-political foundation, but there's too little irreverence, too few flashes of anger and provocation to elicit any more than a frustrated nod at missed opportunities. Moreover, when Sara lifts up her skirt to piss on Jamie's elongated, horizontal body, it's impossible not to be reminded of Dušan Makavejev's far superior Sweet Movie, which juxtaposes extreme scatological acts with truly daring political gestures, such as pairing photographs of Stalin and Marlon Brando side by side aboard a failed revolutionary's candy-filled boat. The Dance of Reality ends with Jodorowsky sailing away on a boat, standing next to someone in a skeleton suit. By comparison, the level of nerve here, as throughout the film, is almost shockingly jejune.