When talking about his sufficiently barmy third feature, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has remarked that he meant to eschew the classic three-act structure, which he doesn’t do all that convincingly. The follow up to El Topo, the film that partially invented the concept of the midnight movie, The Holy Mountain doesn’t want for eccentricities or visual metaphors, but its trajectory isn’t nearly as unpredictable or indecipherable as its imagery might lead one to believe. The film begins on the ground then shoots out past the planets, only to return to the ground in the ultimate goal of liberating one’s self from all the ground offers, not to mention the body. It’s preposterously ambitious and Jodorowsky plays it out in a hodgepodge of sometimes cumbersome symbolism, but it does offer a tether of structure, a slithering backbone that obviously had an effect on one of Jodorowsky’s major disciples: David Lynch.
Before we shoot out into the spiritual plane, we begin in a small, antiseptic room with religious emblems patterning the walls, where the Alchemist, played by the director, holds his court. His ritualistic disrobing of the women and shaving of their heads blasts into a series of cuts to several random pieces of artwork designed like astrological and spiritual symbols. From their things get decidedly, even flamboyantly outré, but a bit more anchored by the appearance of an ersatz Christ referred to as the Thief, played by unknown Horacio Salinas, in a role that was at one time destined for George Harrison (incidentally, John Lennon was also an outspoken fan and supporter of Jodorowsky). In negotiations, Harrison held onto one caveat: He did not want to perform in a scene where the Alchemist and his assistant figure (Zamira Saunders, covered with Hebrew lettering and other markings) wash the Thief’s asshole. Nothing if not certain of his vision, Jodorowsky refused to take the scene out, and thus the film averted being lumped in with such Beatles one-offs as The Magic Christian, which paired Ringo Starr with Peter Sellers.
The Holy Mountain nevertheless shares The Magic Christian‘s theme of liberation from the material world, though Jodorowsky’s path is more experiential and surrealist whereas The Magic Christian saw the way out of perceived reality through absurdum. Jodorowsky follows the Thief as he makes his way through society, destroying false idols and taking a battalion of prostitutes as his disciples. Part of his consciousness is embodied by a limbless vagabond, who helps him attract customers for a restaging of Spain’s Conquest of Mexico, echoing the massacring of the Native American and the Jews, and played out by chameleons and toads. He leaves his limbless friend on Earth and ascends into the spiritual world, where he’s taken under wing by the Alchemist, who plots to murder a group of oracles with a gaggle of other thieves, all representing the darker elements of various astrological symbols.
Part of the phantasmagorical exploration of the Alchemist’s otherworld includes a circular room covered in oversized Tarot cards, painted symbols that Jodorowsky designed himself. Tarot was an obsession for the filmmaker and Zen masters were called in as consultants on the film, administering tablets of LSD while guiding the largely nonprofessional cast through physical and psychological exercises. Many of these exercises can be seen in the film’s final third, as the thieves give up all their money and resign themselves to seeking eternal life at the summit of the titular peak. Before they attempt the climb, however, they are tempted by fame and material success and survive seduction from poetry and drugs, symbolized by versions of Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Pop and art symbolism are indeed just as intricate to Jodorowsky’s mélange as totems of deities and the lunatic beyond: It’s not easy to miss nods to Fellini, Buñuel, and, at one moment, Michelangelo’s “La Pietà.”
Jodorowsky homage is largely aesthetical, however, as his anarchic ending condemns art and, indeed, the very film we have just finished watching as another structure, another façade diverting away from true revolution of the soul. It’s a lot to take in, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there are times where the sheer density of the imagery and the great weight of their meaning occasionally feel earnest or reek of overcompensation. But then it’s also hard sometimes to delineate between pomposity and heartfelt ambition. It largely depends on tone and The Holy Mountain is nothing if not exuberant while cartwheeling its way through the cosmos and back through the non sequitur-strewn plains and deserts, towns and cities, ridges and ranges of Mexico. Jodorowsky nearly died twice during the production, one time at the hands of his own lead, stirring one to bestow The Holy Mountain with that oft-overused label of a “passion project.” For even if you don’t totally buy what Jodorowsky is selling, you have to stand in awe of his belief in his intangible product.
There are some issues that should be raised regarding Anchor Bay's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. There are noticeable instances of color oversaturation, artifacting, and edge-enhancement, especially in the film's more natural settings (the mountains in the third section, for example). For those, like me, who first encountered Alejandro Jodorowsky's dazzling hodgepodge of color and symbolism on a bootleg, however, the Blu-ray offers the best treatment the film has had to date. Jodorowsky's use of color sings in nearly every scene, and the film retains a healthy layer of grain. Clarity has also been enormously improved, made obvious in the scenes introducing the other "thieves" to the Thief. Audio has also been improved, but is also imperfect. Effects sound weak, as does most of the dialogue, but this is more due to Jodorowsky's production than the actual transfer. The mix is solid, if not perfectly balanced, and the soundtrack reverberates nicely in front, leaping from Scandinavian throat-singing to glam-rock posturing to flute and drum loops. In fact, the music seems to be of more importance than the dialogue to Jodorowsky, so the mix, for all its minor faults, feels true.
If you're wondering why that hippo is drinking out of the fountain, or why that attractive transvestite is pouring small porcelain hearts into her mouth, director Alejandro Jodorowsky's commentary is an essential listen. The film was never nearly as strange as certain critics made it out to be, but Jodorowsky clears up a lot of the metaphorical clutter with a dose of humility, and some humor and assuredness. The deleted scenes prove largely worthless, though they help to highlight Jodorowsky's unique process. Short featurettes on the director's interest in Tarot and the process of restoring the film are both informative and enjoyable, though the former goes over some stuff that is explored with far more interest in the commentary. Also included: a slideshow and the original trailer.
Alejandro Jodorowsky's batshit paean to spiritual liberation gets a nice cleanup and an invaluable commentary track from the writer-director on Blu-ray.