El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky's cult film classic caused quite a commotion in the early 70s for its graphic violence and sensuality, in addition to its bizarre, surrealistic imagery. Jodorowsky, a Chilean filmmaker of Russian-Jewish birth is perhaps one of the most celebrated of the obscure filmakers; among his other films are the equally controversial films Santa Sangre and The Holy Mountain.
'El Topo' in English means 'The Mole'. This character is a lonely gunfighter who travels around a desert searching for four masters that he feels he must battle with to achieve true greatness.
The first half of the film plays like a standard western, filmed with spectacular open vistas, authentic looking settings, gunfights and blood spiced up with unexplained kinky acts of sexuality and bizarre behavior. The second half of the movie abandons the conventions of the western genre and becomes more of a symbolic quest film.
If there is any possible interpretation to the endless journey of El Topo, it appears that Jorodowski is showing us that El Topo frequently uses violent means to achieve his goal raising the question as to if any of the characters El Topo fights against actually are evil. Initially his adversaries are clearly twisted and deserve their comeuppance. But as El Topo's journey continues, his adversaries seem less and less threatening and less deserving of their fate. I am assuming that Jorodowski is telling us that because of El Topo’s desire to kill these "masters" by resorting to primal brutality, he slowly loses his humanity.
Stylistically Jorodoski uses some very interesting techniques. He mixes unusual elements of the audio; the loud laughter of the villains that goes on forever, at other times there's only the sound of the wind and the chirping of crickets. Jorodowski can also produced some striking images: An armless man carries a human torso in his back, the parade of freaks and little people who live underground in the vast desert, a group of priests waltzing with a gang of thieves in the middle of a village square, etc. But only images don’t make a film. Jorodowski uses lots of symbolism reminiscent to the work of Luis Bunuel to support his story, but the film’s sketchy structure and lack of any character development adds up to a lot of nothing. Aside some striking images and tableaus the viewer becomes ultimately numbed and even worse bored. This approach emphasizes the dream quality of the world presented but the film, as stylistically interesting as it is sometimes , ultimately numbs the viewer to the point of ennui.
I have nothing against surreal and dream movies. Some of my favorite movies of all times are Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Borgeoise and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. These films used symbolic images within the context of dreams to enlighten us. The difference between those films and EL Topo has a lot to do with a director that cares or not for their audience without underestimating their intelligence. A successful dream movie needs to have certain logic within itself to become accessible to an audience. An unsuccessful dream movie is that in which its logic lays on unjustified excesses and disregard for an audience.
ADDED NOTE: El Topo became a massive word of mouth success when it opened in New York in 1971. It became a midnight cult phenomenom until Allen Klein, the Beatles manager bought the rights to the film. Klein booked the film for several succesful screen viewings and since then has refused to release the film in any form. El Topo is available only in generation bootlegs or imported laser discs from Japan. For more information regarding finding El Topo email via The Spinning Image site.