El Topo was one of the first films to be put on the midnight movie circuit in it’s release. In many ways, the film now stands as a reason that trend should not have been allowed to die out as it did. Director Alejandro Jodoworski combines Buenellian surrealism, French New Wave filming techniques, and Swiftian satire to create one of the most thought provoking, visually beautiful (and visually repulsive) films ever made.
The film’s plot….well, I think I need to stop right there. The film does not really have a plot in the same way that religious texts do not have plots. It is more of a collection of stories following the same man’s journey for ultimate spiritual enlightenment. El Topo (the man) is a gunslinger In who at first seems to live to do only good deeds and punish those who have sinned. During one of these rescues (in which he castrates a colonel that has massacred the population of a town), he abandons his son to Franciscan monks and goes on a quest to defeat four great gunmasters to win favor with Mara, a woman he saved from the colonel who professes her love for him. He does so mostly by cheating, and is eventually cast aside and shot by Mara and her lesbian lover. Twenty years later, he awakens in a cave and is being cared for by a group of deformed people who appear to be trapped there. He promises to help them dig a tunnel to a nearby town, one that follows bizarre religious practices and still sells blacks into slavery. There he meets his son who threatens to kill him. El Topo does eventually succeed in digging the tunnel, only to have the people in the cave be gunned down by the citizens in the town. El Topo, in turn, kills them and commits suicide, leaving the fate of his soul in question.
I have just listed events that occur in the film. But what I have said is not what the film is about. And that is part of what makes the film so extraordinary. Many know about the film’s religious symbolism. Jodorowsy, it seemed, wanted to make a comment about all religions, so he inserted as many references to them as he could. But he also did not want to tell people what to think of religion. In a way, that is the film’s greatest strength, as it prevents one commentary for dominating another. Is this a film about the timeline of religions in the western world? Is El Topo a Christ figure? Is he God? Is he Buddha? He takes on traits of all three. And what of the people he destroys? Are they wicked sinners? Are they merely human? Are they truly devils? Again, the typical line between good and evil has never been drawn. That is what makes the debate so engrossing.
Only one time does Jodoworsky actually make a comment is toward the end when an actual religious ceremony is shown. It involves a congregation playing a game of Russian Roulette while chanting about how God will protect him. The sermon “ends” when a little boy loses the game. It is a very shocking image. But I would not say it is a gratuitous image. None of the violent images are gratuitous, in the same way that no Renaissance paintings are gratuitous with their violent images. It’s all about delivering the message.
One other item about satire though: Is El Topo still funny? Yes, in the same way that Buenel is funny. Some of the images presented are just so absurd that they have to be laughed at. Jodorowsky also throws in references to his time under Marcel Marceau, with several mime bits that the characters use in order to raise money. The music used and the cinematography makes the action feel confined, far more like a stage than like a giant town in the Old West. More absurd images also use the same sort of style. It was actually a good balance of the two, with the world feeling enormous but El Topo (and the audience) are confined to only a certain portion of it. And the images overpower any sort of quotes. Indeed, the film’s dialogue is actually fairly simplistic. Jodorowsky is more comfortable using images than using words. Again, this would be pretentious, but I barely even noticed during the film’s run.
Now, this is not the sort of film that could probably be released today. No studio would touch the material (it is about as far from commercial as could possibly be) nor would any independent filmmaker make it (they would not be brave enough to think on the scale as Jodorowsky and more likely would out rightly condemn religion rather than examining it). Jodorwosky was very brave in the making of this film for not following the conventions that were already set in place, even among the art film circuit. He was the true artist and made a piece of true art in the creation of El Topo.