Friday 21 September 2012

"Santa Sangre" (Moviemail 21/09/12)

The psychedelic cinema of the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky has proved weirdly enduring. From 1970’s El Topo and 1973’s The Holy Mountain onwards, the struggles of these films’ outsider-heroes have resonated across time: first with those turning on, tuning in and dropping out, then with the marginally more sober Midnight Movie crowd, then again with viewers of 1990s TV clipshows, which used this oeuvre to illustrate what was missing from our increasingly corporate cinemascape. 1989’s Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky’s Freudian circus movie – the missing link between Tod Browning’s Freaks and the HBO series Carnivàle – which, for all its perversity, clings keenly, even touchingly, to a notion of innocence.

It’s a film of two halves, in every respect. In the first, our young hero Fenix (Adan Jodorowsky, the director’s youngest) has a maddeningly macho idea of what it is to be a man driven into him by his father, a knifethrower who – unbeknownst to his devout wife – has been pointing all his weapons at the Circo de Gringo’s resident tattooed lady; the consequences of this affair will see Fenix removed to an asylum, and separated from the one girl who really loves him. The second half sees Fenix (now played by older son Axel) rise again, only to swing too far the other way in attaching himself to his (newly armless) mother’s apron strings.

You can instantly spot why it’s become such a fixture in the cinematic counterculture: consider it Philip Larkin’s ageless warning of what your parents do, expressed in more colourful terms yet. As an experience, Santa Sangre is still thrillingly wild, if not unhinged; like its protagonist, it lurches between feminine tenderness and something more fervidly male. The early jawdropper is the once-seen-never-forgotten sequence depicting an elephant’s death: after belching blood from its trunk, the poor creature receives a solemnly lavish burial before the locals descend en masse to carve up the carcass.

It’s wildly long at two hours, yet Jodorowsky keeps generating extraordinary moments and memories, ideas and images. You gawp as armed police, sent in to crush a protest, are momentarily repelled by bandoleros; you gulp down the pre-von Trier transgressive thrill of seeing a director letting loose actors with Down’s syndrome on cocaine and hookers, ahead of the rather more traditional delights of a main-street musical number; you goggle at the women whose hips and glutes put Shakira to shame.

Elsewhere, some of the greatest knife business since Psycho – itself, of course, a warning of the dangers posed by mother’s boys – is only topped by the final-reel sight of our hero literally pulling a python from his pants. Jodorowsky was drunk on the symbolic possibilities of cinema, but he was alert to the pleasures that can follow from taking such frenzied swings and stabs in the dark. Santa Sangre probably isn’t something you’d choose to show in the church hall – unless your vicar was especially broadminded – but it is absolutely a vision, and one that remains every bit as far-out as it ever was.

Santa Sangre opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD re-release on November 5.

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