El Topo means “The Mole.” There’s some opening text explaining it, but it’s not until the film's second half where the title really makes sense. There are some earlier nods—the nameless protagonist (played by director Jodorowsky) starts the film telling his son to bury his childhood. Then later, Jodorowsky will magically find just what he needs by digging in the desert.
At the beginning of the film, Jodorowsky rides around the desert with his naked son; Jodorowsky’s a gunslinger, dressed in all black, teaching his son the trade. They come across a mission where everyone—people and animals—have been disemboweled. It’s actually the least intense El Topo ever gets because everything’s already dead. The subsequent intense scenes, while less gruesome, always have live, suffering victims. El Topo’s big on showing the suffering.
Well, after an almost comic introduction to three bandits—including Alfonso Arau; I spent the next fifty million years and hour and fifty minutes of runtime wondering why Jodorowsky didn’t cast the clearly more charismatic Arau in the lead.
I didn’t know Jodorowsky was the lead until the end credits.
After Jodorowsky and his son dispense with the bandits, they head to another mission where the murderers are encamped, tormenting the neighboring people, raping the priests, and so on. It takes Jodorowsky’s character forever to save anyone. Jodorowsky, the director, has a lot of fun methodically showcasing the violence and terror and the utter buffoonery of those committing it.
Until the second half, when the film time jumps and showcases cruelty and evil—and so long as you skip the rapey stuff–El Topo’s best as an object lesson in how surrealism and farce, with the right sound effects, are indistinguishable.
Jodorowsky’s character will soon abandon his son at the mission once he meets a woman, Mara Lorenzio.
Lorenzio and Jodorowsky will fall in love—according to the dialogue—which he will express by raping her, and she will express by demanding he go kill the four best gunfighters in the desert. Raping her gives her magic powers too, which is never important but does mean it's not all bad, right? Also, Jodorowsky’s character is a Jesus analog, so, you know, there you go.
The film will follow the pair on this quest, quickly adding Paula Romo to the group. Romo’s also a gunfighter, and while Jodorowsky determines how to kill these rivals who’ve all basically given up gunfights, Romo’s out to seduce Lorenzio. Because even though Jodorowsky, the director, likes to male gaze the sapphic, the film goes heavy on the general misogyny too. It’s lower-key on the homophobia, but women are enthusiastically evil. When they’re the worst of the worst, the film dubs them with gruff male voices. Romo’s one of the awful ones.
The quest to defeat the other gunfights eventually drives Jodorowsky’s character to a mental disconnect—he’s basically murdered quirky pacifists—and Romo sees her chance to best him, both in pistols and ladies.
Dramatic resolution and time jump, and now Jodorowsky’s character lives in a hollowed-out mountain, comatose for at least ten years. When he wakes—in a comic scene, but it’s unclear it’s humorous because it’s also the revised ground situation establishing—he discovers he’s living with exiled people with congenital disabilities. The nearby town is big into incest, and whenever a baby comes out with problems, they dump it in the mountain.
Jacqueline Luis plays Jodorowsky’s caretaker—when he was in the coma—who becomes his friend, partner, and lover. As a director, Jodorowsky doesn’t ask much of his actors; if they’re in the movie for a while, it’s be hideous then die; if they’re barely in the movie, it’s usually just suffer and die. Even when someone’s in the film for a sustained period—like new town priest Robert John—they’re still barely in the movie. Medium or long shots, absurdist reaction shots. Not a lot of heavy acting lifting. Especially since everyone’s dubbed anyway.
But Luis is great. As El Topo drags and drags and drags through the second half, Luis is always great. And Jodorowsky, director Jodorowsky, seems to know it and showcases her performance as much as possible.
They’re going to dig a tunnel into the mountain—there was once a tunnel, but the townsfolk closed it—but they need to go into town and do clown shows for money. They have some success; Jodorowsky’s not an untalented physical comedian, and Luis is a little person; the townsfolk eat up their performances. The town’s led by the good Christian ladies of the decency league, who make their slaves fight and then execute them for more laughs. It opens with a branding scene. It's a whole new level of unpleasantness for El Topo and it's a relentless one.
And for a half-hour so, the movie is just the townsfolk being shitty or murderous. Then, the new priest, John, shows up, and the story gets moving again to its inevitable, despondent conclusion.
El Topo’s an unpleasant experience but not really a difficult one. When the Jesus metaphors come through, they come through with a, “Oh, JFC, he’s Jesus!” Every single time. It’s tedious. Jodorowsky’s self-indulgent with the violence, which plays like a commentary on Westerns in the first half, but not the second. There’s a funny spoof of a Spaghetti Western stand-off at the beginning, before El Topo’s too far in, and the spoofing stops for more violence, more absurdity, more cruelty.
If it added up, who knows? It doesn’t add up, though. Pretty photography from Rafael Corkidi. Some of Jodorowsky’s direction is good. It’s never bad—surrealism, like farce, defines its own bar. But there’s nothing to it; you can get pretty landscapes, misogyny, queerphobia, and Jesus analogies in better, shorter movies.