By Jonathon Sharp

It’s been 23 years since Alejandro Jodorowsky, the filmmaker whose El Topo sparked the midnight movie craze in the early ’70s, made a film. And although the playwright, actor, author, musician, and spiritual guru is 85, his latest, The Dance of Reality, is just as dazzling and unforgettable as the titles that earned him his wings as the patron saint of cult cinema. But what makes The Dance different from classics like The Holy Mountain is his choice to make it fantastically autobiographical. Through the lens of a bloody and mystic surrealism, he re-imagines his boyhood in Tocopilla, Chile. Using his real-life family members as actors, he turns his memories into an epic picture-poem that revels in absurdities and contradictions, and the myriad ways that they mark our lives.

The story has two parts. The first is a fable of Jodorowsky’s childhood. The director introduces us to a younger version of himself, played by Jeremias Herskovits, and occasionally narrates the boy’s adventures. We find the little Alejandro in the sea-side town trying to please his authoritarian, Stalin-worshiping father. To win his affection, the boy has to go through various trials, like getting his tooth fixed without novocaine. When Alejandro discovers religion, his father takes him to the bathroom and throws symbols of the cross and crescent in the toilet, telling him: “God doesn’t exist. There is nothing beyond!” If this wasn’t intimidating enough, the boy is caught between his parents. His mom — who, bizarrely, says everything in an Opera voice — thinks her son is the reincarnation of his grandfather, thus believing he’s holy. She treats him like a god, while his father treats him like soldier. They fight over him constantly, leaving him alienated and confused. Every once in a while, Jodorowsky the 85-year-old will appear behind the boy, holding him like a spirit being, as if comforting the child he once was.

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The other side of the story belongs to the father, played by Brontis Jodorowsky, the director’s real-life son. (Notice how here the son is the cinematic reincarnation of the grandfather). With an energy reminiscent of Klaus Kinski, the younger Jodorowsky plays the villainous father in the first part and then a sympathetic hero in the second. His transformation comes after he leaves his family on a quest to kill the country’s dictator, and utterly fails. Literally crippled by his inability, the father drifts about the country, finding himself in the company of those he once shunned: the cripples, the religious, the weak. The moral here — after so many trials and adventures — unfolds like a flower. Point being: Life is to be at odds with oneself; contradictions define us, and they should, in a way, be embraced.

Believe it or not, The Dance is a bit tamer than Jodorowsky’s earlier works. Still, he’s a master of spectacle, and pulls it off here on a relatively modest budget. When put up against today’s super hero franchises, with their ballet-like fight scenes and CGI-ed cityscapes of glittering apocalypse, The Dance‘s  out-right weirdness – dressed up in wigs and fake blood — has a refreshing, simple quality. Yet his spectacle isn’t shallow. The emotional undercurrents capture many, and often conflicting, feelings. Such as a moment earlier on, when the little Alejandro kills thousands of fish and watches seagulls devour them on the shore. “Do I feel the despair of the fishes?” the boy asks himself. “Or the joy of the birds?” Jodorowsky constructs the nightmarish world of his childhood so that we can tap into both feelings, simultaneously. So despite all the absurd episodes and surreal asides, the experience of The Dance is, at its core, deeply human. This comes through even in the credits, when we see that his other sons starred in the film and that another composed the music. His wife also contributed, making the costumes. What catharsis there must be in making art about childhood with one’s children, with one’s family.

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The Dance of Reality is playing at the Uptown Theatre.

Jonathon Sharp