When I was in my twenties in the early 1970's, EL TOPO was making the rounds of underground theatres in New York City in midnight screenings to fans already in awe of the great European film auteurs – Goddard, Antonioni, Fellini and Truffaut. EL TOPO, shot in the Mexican desert, fashioned the art film on Western shores with its gun slinging Spaghetti Western hero out to find spiritual enlightenment rather than outlaw justice.
The film is now making a long awaited comeback, being released in DVD by Anchor Bay Films and playing as a feature in art theatres around town. To add to the revival, the creator's memoirs, "The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky" will be released by Inner Traditions Publishing in July 2008.
With this opportunity to present my take on the film as a review I wrote in 1971 that has never been published, I feel that it, like the mole, will finally see the light of the sun.
EL TOPO – The Mole
by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Written, directed and starring Alejandro Jodorowsky, EL TOPO – The Mole, has been gaining a word of mouth reputation in New York City and as any new object or phenomena that enters the realm of human perception, described by as many adjectives pro and con that conjure a powerful reaction.
The film is handled by the Douglas Corporation, which has not yet established a policy of distribution, but plans to enter the film in the Cannes Festival this spring. Other than an interview with Alejandro and excerpts from the film's screenplay in the Latin American issue of TDR (T46), EL TOPO has received no publicity in this country.
Produced by Poducciones Panicas, the film was shot in 35mm color by Rafael Corkidi in Mexico during the summer of 1970. Alejandro wrote the musical score. He is best known in Mexico City, where he has lived for the past ten years, as author of Panic Fables, a satiric comic strip printed in the right-wing Herald. The artifice of the film— its brilliant costumes, the manner in which tinted foliage is set against the desert's constant light, the way in which the sand and sky act as backdrop against which actors portray representative forces rather than individual character, reflects the style of Cinema Novo.
Alejandro's experience in theatre began while he was a student of psychology and philosophy in Santiago. He directed over 100 plays and written and staged adoptions of others. EL TOPO is his second film; his first feature length film. When his film FANDO AND LIS, based on a play by Arabel, was sold to Cannon Productions and the concept changed, he became embittered. "I think they behaved rather stupidly because they cut all the strong scenes. They edited the film with the taste of the New York Times critic in mind and they killed it. There are many things in FANDO AND LIS, that resemble Fellini's SATYRICON, but my film was made three years before SATYRICON."
EL TOPO goes beyond any previous or contemporary concept of cinema and speaks of a new era in civilization in which film plays troubadour to the tribal myth. Like the ancestral heroes of Homer's poetry or Beowulf , EL TOPO personifies man's struggle to live with himself – on earth, with other men and God.
In an interview concerning the film Alejandro said, "I believe that the only objective end of all human activity – whether it be politics, art, science, etc. is to find enlightenment, to reach the state of enlightenment. I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill. Rather he needs to manufacture the pill. Many say that Alexander the Great was an idiot because his conquest was so great, so complete, that as he progressed in conquering the world he was actually progressing toward his ultimate failure. I think that he was journeying into the depths of his being. I want to travel the route of the Odyssey. I want to travel the route of Alexander the Great. I want to travel into the deepest areas of my being in order to reach enlightenment. Period."
EL TOPO – The Mole
The mole is an animal that digs passages searching for the sun. Sometimes he reaches the surface. When he looks at the sun he goes blind.
EL TOPO is broken into Four Sections entitled: Genesis, Prophets, Psalms and Apocalypse. Alejandro's frame of reference in philosophy, world religion, Buddhism, Taoism, mystic Catholicism, esoteric and drug cults brings certain aspects of the film beyond interpretation and make it as difficult to decipher as the symbolism of a stranger's dream. Alejandro has celebrated the most brutal drives in men, perhaps to enforce new life into the stale blood of the Christian host.
EL TOPO brings the viewer into its dimension through a series of shocks, visual, literal and physical – a spurt of blood – a whiplash – a cry of agony. Halfway through the film, when the nerves are toughened by the constant flow of blood, Alejandro turns the film inside out and softens the viewer so that the next barrage of violence becomes more real, more painful.
Have Gun Will Travel
As the film opens El Topo, carrying a black umbrella and dressed in a black leather cowboy outfit and gaucho hat, rides a black horse through the desert with the naked body of his son riding on the back. He stops at a pole pitched in the sand. He lowers his son and instructs him, "Today you are 7 years old. You are a man. A real man is alone. Bury your first toy and your mother's picture."
In the Buddhist cycle of life, the four stages of man are marked by the goals of Knowledge – Success – Devotion – and Sannyism (Meditation). When a boy is seven years old, he leaves his family to study with a learned master.
Alejandro said, "The pole in the desert is a Tao symbol. It is a sundial. I wanted to try to film the scene at a given point facing a given direction that would cast a shadow that would point to the site of a hidden treasure. The story goes that a man went to that site. He dug and dug, but found nothing. As his shadow began to shorten until at noon, he had no shadow at all. And then he understood."
The desert is the metaphysical object of the film. The desert that prevails man's presence on earth, its vital forms of survival no less sordid than the process of man's civilizations that pass over.
Jehovah, God of Genesis, was a jealous God, the father of the tribe. El Topo kills the Colonel's gang, whom like the renegades of Sodom and Gomorrah perform sacrilege. At the monastery where they hang out El Topo exchanges his son for Mara, the Colonel's mistress.
In the Buddhist religion, Mara is the Evil One who rejoiced not and threatened the enlightenment of Buddha. She was overcome by his power and banished from his life forever.
Adam and Eve
When El Topo and Mara enter the desert, Mara asks him how they will survive. She spreads her legs and digs eggs from the sand. When he shoots at a rock, water sprouts from it. He rapes her and obsessed by the power of his love, he demands that he prove himself to be the best man in the desert by conquering its four greatest masters. Alejandro said, " I put a clause in all the women's contracts stating that they would not make love with the director. I knew nothing about her. I went to the desert with two other people, the photographer and a technician. No one else. I said, I'm not going to rehearse. There will be one take because it will be impossible to repeat. Roll the cameras. And I really, really raped her."
Success of the Four Masters
Each master has achieved a peace and artistry in his own zone of retirement that presents a challenge to El Topo's restless ability. He finds one lounging on massive pillows behind the seated figure of his gypsy mother whose pet lion paces in the background. The master builds a syntax of structures out of toothpicks. He lectures El Topo on love, "Love is perfection. Perfection means getting lost. In order to get lost you must love. In order to love you must give. When you give, you give to destroy…"
The Seeds of His Own Destruction
Near the home of the first master a dark woman named Graciela, dressed in narcissist replica of El Topo, offers in a masculine voice to show El Topo through the cycle of the desert. She draws a path in the sand to each of the master's homes. On their way, she sadistically seduces Mara. When El Topo's conquests turn to guilt and suffering, he is tormented by the loss of God. He dies at the hands of Mara who chooses Graciela above him.
El Topo's body is carried by lepers holding palm branches into a cavern, where he awakens years later in the form of a blond God attended to by a midget. He is offered a strange drug in the form of a beetle by a witch of the tribe, after which he shaves his head. Dressed in the ochre gown of a Buddhist monk, he promises the cripples to bring them out of their caves to freedom. He and the midget enter the town in which every form of corruption and perversion are carried out under the pyramid sign of power. They beg with a bowl for money with which they buy dynamite.
Having impregnated a woman named Jacqueline, he meets his son, now a monk, and asks him to marry them. After they have set the captives free, they are killed by the people of the town. In a superhuman effort El Topo destroys them and sacrifices himself. The midget, Jacqueline, his newborn child and son ride off, perhaps to breed a new cycle of life in wisdom.