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Review: El Topo

Just got back in from a midnight screening of El Topo at IFC Center. I’ve read a lot about this perennial arthouse favorite over the years, but concrete plot details were always difficult to come by. Now I know why: what begins as a fairly generic (albeit somewhat quirky) Western about a black-clad gunslinger and his stark naked son avenging the slaughter of an entire village quickly takes a hard swerve into the surreal. The result is a psychedelic, hallucinogenic odyssey, less concerned with narrative than with assaulting the viewer with a barrage of bizarre, borderline incomprehensible imagery (such as a man with no legs riding on the back of a man with no arms, or a pile of dead rabbits spontaneously bursting into flames).

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s direction evokes equal parts Sergio Corbucci, David Lynch, and John Waters—relentlessly pessimistic, deliberately nonsensical, and gleefully grotesque. There may even be a bit of Ed Wood and Tommy Wiseau in him: he’s clearly attempting to grapple with themes of sin, redemption, faith, forgiveness, and enlightenment, but because he leans so heavily on faux symbolism, the film ultimately ends up feeling silly at best and self-important at worst. 

That being said, I still managed to find plenty of beauty amidst the madness (the reconciliation between our reformed hero and his now adult son in the third act is particularly moving). El Topo is very much like some of my favorite poetry that way: sure, it’s kind of a word salad, but man, does it have a nice rhythm.

[Originally written September 16, 2017.]

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