Monday, May 9, 2011

El Topo (1970)

Strikingly original, yet slightly overlong, this surreal western tells the story of a gunfighter as he trains his son, rescues a damsel, hunts down rival gunmen, and, finally, seeks redemption. The imagery of this film is its most striking element. Utilizing its fullscreen scope to its full potential, the exposures of the sky, the desert, the caves, and the mountains contained within the film are all absolutely gorgeous and picturesque. The imagery is heavily slanted towards religious symbolism, which, thankfully, is not specific enough to turn off atheists and agnostics (like myself). The action is effective, but minimal and quickly-cut; this is not a Sergio Corbucci actioner, by any means, but a more broody, evocative piece, where the violence, although prevalent, is the exception to the rule. The first part of the film is a more traditionalist western, with the gunfighter being taunted by his woman into challenging the four master gunfighters in the area. Each of them have their own method of survival, directly tying into their philosophy of life, which the gunfighter is then forced to emulate or subvert in order to achieve victory. Had the film been solely about this narrative, it could have been a more open-minded, spiritual cousin to the other foreign-made westerns coming out at that time (see Leone and Corbucci). However, writer/director/star Alexander Jodorowsky tacks on a whole other act, jumping forward a decade-plus, showing the gunfighter on his path to redemption.

Although there is plenty of inspiring, poignant footage within, it is this section of the film that is the most problematic. For one, the other characters of the film disappear, and the one(s) that remain are magnificently warped, creating a brand new plotline almost completely separate from what came before. This could be very brave, and, potentially, outstandingly effective, if not for the second crucial problem, which is that the new plotline is, surprisingly, rather cliched. The gunfighter is nursed to health by a band of malformed outcasts, and he becomes a monk, devoting himself to reintroducing his new friends back into mainstream society, possibly by force. While there are interesting aspects to this, such as his dwarf love interest and the uncompromisingly brutal ending, it is fairly preachy and, dare I say, soft in comparison to what came before it. It remains a hauntingly executed, astoundingly inventive western, one that shares much more stylistic commonalities with Orson Welles and Godard than Sergio Leone or John Ford. However, I cannot forget the feeling of waiting for the film to end, and seeing the multiple opportunities to do so effectively without dragging the more sentimentalist, middling elements of the film out to their breaking point.

Recommended for fans of highly original, New-Wave influenced work of the late '60s, early '70s, or of less conventional, more outside-of-the-box westerns, such as Dead Man or High Plains Drifter. I am definitely fascinated enough with Jodorowsky's style to seek out his grand opus, Holy Mountain, which, without the trappings of the traditionalist western, I can imagine will be an even more revelatory, striking experience.

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