“The church will never recognize this heresy!”
CW: sexual assault
When Alejandro Jodorowsky was promoting his 1970 film El Topo, he claimed to have actually raped actress Mara Lorenzio as part of shooting a controversial rape scene in the film. Decades later, in a 2017 statement on Facebook, he dismissed those same claims as, essentially, ridiculous, suggesting that no one should ever have believed them.
“These aggressive, meant to be humorous declarations conquered the era’s young public who were against the establishment and affected by the Vietnam war,” he offered as justification for his statements, claiming that no other films from Mexico had made it across “the cactus wall” and into American cinemas, and suggesting that it was because of this behavior that El Topo became a cult film that “continues to be screened and discussed.”
Whatever really happened on the set of El Topo, Jodorowsky is, at best, a guy who bragged about raping someone for publicity, which is pretty fucking gross all by itself. Having never seen any of his highly celebrated films nor even the much-lauded 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune prior to sitting down with the massive 4-disc Blu-ray of Santa Sangre from Severin, that’s what I knew about Alejandro Jodorowsky. He was the director who bragged about raping someone.
As you might imagine, then, I was not exactly looking forward to my first dive into one of his films. How much did this knowledge color my experience of watching Santa Sangre? It’s hard to say, but I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t have hated this tiresome relic regardless of what I knew (or didn’t) about Jodorowsky beforehand.
When I’m writing about film, I try very hard to contextualize my own feelings, so that every piece of film criticism is not just a case of, “I liked this movie, here’s why.” So, when I’m writing about Santa Sangre, bear in mind that I am vastly in the minority when it comes to my reaction to the picture, which is pretty much universally hailed by critics as some sort of masterpiece. It sits (near the bottom, but still) on Empire magazine’s list of the 500 greatest movies of all time, enjoys an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes (with an audience score that’s even higher), and Roger Ebert once called it “a horror film, one of the greatest.”
Ebert and I can at least agree on half of that statement. Santa Sangre is definitely a horror film, essentially the world’s most high-concept slasher flick, complete with that subgenre’s usual butcher’s block understanding of trauma and mental illness and fixation on overly simplistic psychosexual themes.
To explain fully the convoluted plot of Santa Sangre might take longer than its interminable two-hour running time, as evinced by the fact that the Wikipedia plot synopsis takes five full paragraphs before it even gets to the film’s inciting incident. Boiled down as much as is humanly possible, a young Fenix (played, at different ages, by two of Jodorowsky’s own sons) witnesses his father kill his mother (and then himself) by cutting her arms off after she catches him in flagrante delicto with another member of their circus troupe.
I guess the film actually somehow expects us to believe, however, that she survived and later, when Fenix escapes from a mental hospital (where he thinks that he’s a bird), the two rejoin into a stage act where he serves as her hands and also, naturally, kills at her command any women who remind him of the aforementioned incident.
If that seems like a bit much, know that it is only the barest skeleton of the “surreal” plot that is layered onto what is otherwise, let’s be frank, little more than a riff on William Lustig’s Maniac. The reveal that the mother and, indeed, much of the rest of the film is an hallucination is saved for the final reel, though anyone who has ever seen a movie (and probably most who haven’t) will be miles ahead of the picture from pretty much the jump.
That sounds harsh and, well, it’s intended to. I hated this movie, as I mentioned up above, even while I’ll admit that there are haunting and poetic moments scattered here and there (even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and all that) such as the scene when Alma, Fenix’s deaf and unspeaking love interest, is returning home through an apocalyptic litter of discarded Day of the Dead skeletons.
Aside from the anecdote I recounted at the beginning of this review, I don’t know a lot about Jodorowsky, but even if I didn’t know what little I do about him, I could have guessed it from watching this movie. Santa Sangre is the kind of film that only gets made by men who are into mysticism and “psychomagic” and who have bought into their own hype. That obviously works for a lot of people but didn’t for me, at least not this time.
I led with that anecdote mostly because I feel that it’s important to get that out in the open first thing when discussing Jodorowsky and his work, but it’s also a good illustration of what you can expect from Santa Sangre. If we take Jodorowsky at his (later) word and believe that the claims of rape were merely performance art, him playing the shock jock radio DJ and provocateur, that’s essentially what Santa Sangre is, as well. It’s a film filled with gallons of blood and plenty of exploitation that gets a pass (and then some) because it buries it all under a sheen of the surreal, the avant-garde, and the mystical.
Obviously, your mileage for that will vary from mine, and most people seem to venerate this plodding, self-important slasher which, according to Britain’s Film 4, “resonates with all the disturbing power of a clammy nightmare.” If you count yourself among their number, one can’t fault the new 4K release from Severin, which is spread across four discs loaded to the limit with special features, including a soundtrack CD.