Depending on your level of pop culture literacy these days the name Alejandro Jodorowsky might mean several things to you. You might know him as the guy who once tried and failed to make Frank Herbert’s Dune before David Lynch made it and still failed. You might know him as Kanye West’s favourite filmmaker. You might know him as the visionary mastermind behind such cinematic mindfucks as The Holy Mountain and El Topo. But do you really KNOW Jodorowsky?
With his first film in a quarter of a century, The Dance of Reality, you’ll certainly understand the filmmaker a lot more than you once did. A deeply personal and featuring a surprising amount of open emotion and empathy from the Chilean maverick, it’s not only Jodorowsky’s most linear and easy to understand story, but it’s also unmistakably one of his best.
A very loosely autobiographical take on his impoverished upbringing in Tocopilla during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Dance of Reality focuses largely on young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) and his relationship to his often cantankerous and sometime abusive father, Jaime (played by Alejandro’s son, Brontis). Jaime is a contradiction: a literal card carrying Communist who at one point will attempt to assassinate a Chilean leader (that never really happened), but who demands totalitarian control over his personal matters.
The film opens with shots of Jodorowsky talking about how money ruins and redeems everything over shots of golden coins raining down in the background around him. It sets the tone for everything to come: deeply personal and go for broke. He’s not afraid anymore of shying away from potentially corny or on-the-nose moments, but he’s also going to be as iconoclastic as ever because it’s all he knows how to do. For the first time, Jodorowsky is opening up to the audience on a surprisingly warm and personal level instead of on an ideological one.
Take for example how the first adults young Alejandrito sees are clowns and circus performers all jockeying for attention and the spotlight. Then compare that to Jaime’s Communist brethren later on, and you see that Alejandro never understood adults and that he probably still doesn’t. He shows an equal love and hatred for his parents, forcing his mother (Pamela Brontis) to be a constantly operatic, heaving bosomed, smotherer, and his father as a not so closeted bigot (at one point drawing the ire of an oddly bigoted mob of cripples and amputees) and an overcompensating coward. And yet, there isn’t judgement for either of them, simply skewed observation through the eyes of a young artist as a child.
At one particularly poignant moment, the man he has become will try to talk the boy he was out of committing suicide. These images are powerful and generate a great deal of empathy for a man who stands as an artistic cipher for many casual cinephiles who don’t seem to get what he’s about. It might be his most recent film, and it could very well be his last, but it’s a great starting point if you haven’t seen any of his films before now. It’s as poetic, daring, and cinematic as anything else he has attempted, but it also feels like it could have been the work of a teenager who’s incapable of censoring any thoughts that pop into his head. That might be the most subversive thing about old man Jodo’s latest: it’s one of the few good examples of teenage poetry that the writer shouldn’t feel embarrassed about. In spite of the sometimes coal black subject matter, it’s still a giddy delight to watch.
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