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EL TOPO: An Epic Review

“Today you are seven years old. Now you are a man. Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.”...film is nothing short of hypnotic... ...Jodorowsky's epic spaghetti western revisited...


An Epic Review




Man in black on horseback carrying an umbrella (also black) and a small shirtless child on his back. The man is El Topo and the boy the Son of El Topo. They stop in the desert, dismount and tie the horse to a nearby post.

"Today you are seven years old. Now you are a man. Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.”

As the boy digs in the sand, the man plays a couple of beautiful, heart-wrenching notes on a flute. Then they ride off on the horse, leaving mommy’s photograph jutting out of the ground, making for a classic low-angle image in cinematic history and cult pop iconography.

“The mole is an animal that digs tunnels under the ground,” El Topo tells us. “Sometimes his journey brings us to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded.”

He is talking about himself, of course, as “El Topo” roughly translates as “The Mole,” and the protagonist later finds himself in a position convenient similar to the aforementioned description. Never let it be said that Jodorowsky couldn’t be subtle.

El Topo and his son pass through a bluff and see some small animal impaled on a stick, its blood spilled out beneath it in a huge crimson-brown puddle. This spooks El Topo’s horse and he has to grip the reins for balance as it jerks its head around and freaks out. As they forge ahead they see that all the livestock has been slaughtered, with the exception of some very cacophonous fowl and a lone brown horse.

Upon throwing open the doors to the barn, El Topo’s eyes fall on aisle after aisle of dead men hanging from the ceiling. This is a grim environment to subject your small boy to, even for a vengeful cowboy in a funny hat. So he heads outside and there he finds a dying man, the sole survivor of the village massacre, who begs El Topo to show mercy by killing him. So commences an interesting underlying thematic thread in the film---the concept of murder as euthanasia, a sign of God’s merciful exoneration of his subjects.

“Who did this?” El Topo asks the man.

“Kill me, for the love of God!”

Fair enough, it only seems like the right thing to do. But why not make a man of the boy yet, eh? That’s one way of teaching your son the way of the world. El Topo hands the pistol to his son and the child fires into the man’s gut. Then daddy makes off with every gaudy piece of jewelry he can pry for the decomposing fingers of the slain townsfolk.

Shortly thereafter, a leather-clad bandit finds a shitload of high heels and starts sniffing them, chewing on them and then using them for target practice. Another bandit in a bombrero slices the Hell out of an exotic fruit on a vine, then savors a chunk of it with a smile on his face. A bald bandit of considerable girth assembles rocks into a childish pattern of a woman, then lies down on top of them and starts shoveling the gravel into his mouth in some insane paroxysm of lust.

These are clearly outlaws of the cruel and ugly variety and once they spot El Topo and his son, the hooting and hollering starts, as is inevitable in any confrontational scene between the hero and the vagrants in any spaghetti western. The conventionalism stops there, as Chilean helmsman Alejandro Jodorowsky (Fando & Lis, The Holy Mountain) flips the script and descends into uncharted surrealist territory.

The bandits block El Topo’s path and gallop alongside his house, squishing junior’s face in their dirty hands and imitating the sounds an adolescent bully or spoiled brat might make if he had the toy every other kid wanted. “Neh neh neh neh neh nah!” And horrible, grating laughter! Then they start taunting his humble black steed and circle around him, cackling like a band of drunken lecherous retards.

Their guffaws of heartless mockery blend in with the bleating of goats as they approach a gang of men on horses and mules. They ride to the vanguard of the rat pack of renegades and drifters and sit poised on their own horses, staring El Topo down stoically as one blows up a red balloon and passes it to his friend.

The portly bandit takes the balloon and places it on the ground between  El Topo and his new-found enemies. It whistles as it deflates. We watch it as it shrinks smaller and smaller, waiting for it to run out with the same fierce anticipation El Topo and his would-be killers, knowing that when the music of compressed oxygen dies away, all are going to draw, but only one is going to draw quick enough to keep their life.

Sure enough, El Topo triumphs in this sequence, leaving two “bad guys” faceless ---from the gun play--- and the third dude, he of brown leather and moccasin trim, shot in the leg after he and El Topo spar using riddles as swords. And when he refuses to name his leader, El Topo shoots him in the other leg. And then in the right shoulder. Then, finally, in the left, which brings him down for good in a small ravine.

“Who is it?” El Topo snarls gruffly in the dying scumdog’s face.

“It’s…the colonel,” the bandit finally confesses in a shaky voice.

Indeed, temas los bigotes. The ‘stache is an arrow of subterfuge. A mustachioed villain blows his nose on a holy text as a mad executioner acts as the firing squad on a group of prisoners. A multi-ethnic chapter of these gnarly henchman then untie a bunch of young clergymen and force them to be their dancing partners, humiliating them and nibbling on their handsome unblemished faces before removing their vestments and carrying them off over shoulder.

A peasant girl, some plain but attractive waif in clothes befitting an Afghani woman, is another subject of their torment, but escapes rape by reminding them of The Colonel’s orders. This is Mara and she is obviously The Colonel’s love slave, someone held captive and kept on hand to kiss his feet (which she literally does) and bow like any loyal wench or semen receptacle.

When we first see The Colonel he seems a feeble and pathetic sort, in spite of the worship he commands, lying on a weird mattress and writhing about like a junk sick epileptic in an odious stone domicile with intimidating graven images of Jesus on the wall. But he quickly disproves these notions by forcing his tearful servants to beg for their life and slapping his cunt around for offering him a pair of boots.

“They are like animals,” he says of his horny enforcers. “They have no souls, they’ll even beg for leftovers.”

Beating the helpless into submission is the man’s game and he achieves his sense of orgasmic supremacy by making innocent women tend to his lousy pussy hound acolytes’ needs.

This all changes when El Topo shows up and kills several of his men, then corners him within the confines of a stone wall. Sho nuff, El Topo shoots the toupee off him and strips him of his clothes, exposing his weaknesses to all surviving ruffians. Let that be a lesson to you! Sometimes the wolf is defanged and sometimes Little Red Riding Hood comes strapped with a handy firearm.

But upheaval is not enough for the Colonel’s sort. So El Topo castrates him with a sharp, rusty old rapier. And right before The Colonel’s men hold him down and his manhood is lopped off, The Colonel exclaims, “But I don’t even know who you are!”

 “I am God,” the enigmatic anti-hero replies.

And he just might be. The messiah. The Lord in corporeal form. “I thirst for God,” he prays in a monotone voice as he and Mara meander through a desert wasteland. He shoots a rock and eureka! There is water! But is he the true son of God or just an illusionist? Is he more Allah than David Blaine or more David Blaine than Allah?

The rest of the film is spent in pursuit of the desert’s Four Masters, each a very passive being opposed to El Topo’s ways. And it is these figures who allow for doubt to set in as to whether or not El Topo could be The One, by contrast alone. His attitude and methods are so far removed from their world of tranquility and wisdom that he couldn’t possibly be omnipotent…could he?

“The lower you fall, the higher you will rise,” one of the Masters tells him, then proceeds to pummel the bloody shit out of him. “Perfection is to lose oneself. In order to be lost, one must love, but you don’t love! You destroy! You kill! And no one loves you! When you believe you are giving, you are really taking away!”

And after all this, the wiseman helps the crippled El Topo to his feet.

“Two are better than one, for if one falls, the other will help his companion. Woe to him who has no one to help him when he falls.”

Does this sudden, unmotivated act of reprieve represent the contradiction of the Bible, the dichotomy of wrath and unconditional love and surrender? Who the fuck knows? Surely, not the heads who filed into midnight screenings of the film when it was first released domestically in 1970.

“Take your revolver back. My son wishes to give you one last chance.”

El Topo returns his pardon/reprieve by shooting the Master in his back. Way to show your appreciation! At one point, El Topo is shot through the heart, but he laughs the wound off and rises to his feet again. “Too much perfection is a mistake,” he says.

El Topo wrestles with the trappings of his existence, begetting a whole lot of nothing…

“My blood has spilled like water…all my bones have been wretched…my heart is melted like wax through the seething entrails of my body…my tongue clings to my palate…I wallow in the dusts of death…my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so removed from my salvation? Why is thine ear deaf to my pleas? My God, I cry out to you by day, but thou heareth not. And by night, thine eyes are blind to me…”

In the end (of the film’s first chapter), it is the pain of betrayal that seems to be his undoing…betrayal and lesbianism.

As he is lead off into the desert on a great reed, his voice-over offers a requiem, a positive final prayer. “Show me thy ways, O Lord, and teach me thy paths. Guide me to your truth and teach me, for thou art the god of my salvation. I trust in thee throughout my day of life. I shall teach sinners thy way and thy justice shall guide the meek.”

El Topo reemerges from his permanent rest, in Act Two: Psalms, to find himself sitting Indian-style in a dank cavern where a race of sick and addled people live in squalor and sleep in garbage cans or culverts. They are deformed from years of incest and reprobated by the outside world.

An ineffable religious and hallucinatory experience follows, culminating in an awakening transmogrification, from shell of a man with bushy red ‘fro to bald defender of anathema. Soon, the man is vowing to save a population…but has he been saved himself?

Humiliation as a form of prostitution, slavery as a practice of decency (?) and, ironically enough, love that is blind (love between a savior of indeterminate origin and a woman of dwarf’s stature) all show up as active themes. Other key allusions in the film are to the illusive and oft-desperate faith that people invest in theological institutions and their ancient icons. The civilization that exists outside the cave is truculent and atavistic, but the villagers fancy themselves good servants to God. When in church, they sing his praises while passing around a gun and playing Russian roulette as a sign of faith, operating on the principle that if the gun goes off, you obviously are bereft of the necessary faith. Thing is, the preacher has filled the gun with a blank, to ensure that no mistakes are made. Of course, the filmmaker devises an interesting way to play with this concept and, naturally, it ends sanguinary.

The denouement of the film is nothing short of hypnotic, calling to mind elements of Buddhism and the Incubus song “Pardon Me”. In parts “El Topo” can be difficult, frustrating, confusing and even hard to believe ---much like the religion it is concerned with--- and some might be too prudish to look beyond its more challenging and polemical points, but taken as a whole, Jodorowsky’s messianic epic reveals itself as one of the most startling and brazen achievements in modern cinema. As shocking today as when it was first put out, “El Topo” is first-rate avant-garde…and one of the finest uses of color in any film.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is currently in development on the millennial follow-up to this classic film---Son of El Topo. The Saga continues…


© Copyright 2004 Bob Freville

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