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27 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Complex Mexican Religious Allegory, June 29, 2007
This review is from: El Topo (DVD)
El Topo is the classic Mexican film hailed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono enough that it was shown at midnight in many cinemas for years. It is often credited as starting the midnight movie countercultural that helped bring attention to, and build cult film audiences for movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and David Lynch's Eraserhead. In that respect it is far from a mainstream film but it got enough attention that it is celebrated even today. I feel that this is with good reason, as El Topo is one of best films ever made. Alejandro Jodorowsky directs and stars as the title character.

El Topo begins with its eponymous character in the desert with his son. He tells the boy to bury a picture of his mother and his toy in the sand as now it is time for him to become a man. The boy is vulnerable but El Topo leads him by example while protecting him in their various interactions with others. The film understands the western genre and the machismo that often accompanies it. El Topo is one bad cowboy who can guarantee protection for anyone he cares about. So it really sucks when he soon leaves his son behind with a bunch of monks after emasculating some evil banditos. He leaves with a girl he saved and he names her Mara. Mara loves El Topo for being the alpha male that he is, so she convinces him to kill the four best gunslingers so he can be baddest cowboy of them all. He manages to defeat them in various significant ways. These scenes are rich in biblical and other religious references and operate allegorically to show that being a bad cowboy isn't really all it's cracked up to be. Nevertheless, for better or worse, El Topo kills all four of them and begins to learn four specific lessons along the way. He begins to feel guilty and while he is caught off guard during the beginning stages of his enlightenment, he is defeated by the unknown woman who followed El Topo and Mara during their journey. Viewing El Topo as vulnerable, Mara betrays him and leaves with this unknown woman gunslinger. El Topo's battered and shot up body is taken away to a cave by a multitude of unseemly characters.

Macrocosmically, the journey for El Topo overall suggests that his travels represent the rise and trials of Judeo-Christian theologies, with the son representing new Judeo-Christianity and El Topo representing the old philosphies. The second half of the film seems to comment on more contemporary dealings and even anticipates what will happen in the future. How will El Topo's son grow? How will he react to the father who abandoned him but who has himself grown? How will the dominant faith evolve? How will it maintain its truth and purity with humanity at the wheel?

In the literal sense, the second half of El Topo forwards to a few years later after he is brought to a cave by this band of deformed pariahs. When he wakes up we soon realize that El Topo is a different man. He shaves off his beard and head and dresses as a monk. He makes a plan to free these people from their cave so they can join the community outside. He plans to fund the building of a tunnel to free these people. He does this by going to the town with his dwarven girlfriend to entertain them with comedy and dancing, among other small jobs. The town itself is by no means a utopia as it is wrought with slavery and violence. A new priest at the church in town is revealed to be El Topo's own son who he abandoned years earlier. El Topo's son plans to kill him but he decides not to do so until the tunnel is complete. The tunnel gets finished and El Topo's son decides not to kill him. Meanwhile, the deformed people are free and as they head to the town the villagers there begin to shoot and kill all of them, to El Topo's dismay. El Topo unleashes his vengeance on the villagers, killing them all and in the process freeing their slaves. El Topo then lights himself on fire, which was a timely parallel to the Buddhist monks who did the same in protest of the Vietnam War. During his death, El Topo's new son is born to his dwarven girlfriend. If the Buddhist references are consistent then this would suggest that El Topo is reincarnated as his own son and religious truth will continue to surface again.

I think it is important to note that the content in El Topo could be perceived as both perplexing and offensive to many movie-goers. Alejandro Jodorowsky kills real animals, uses real deformed and dwarfed people, and liberally applies nudity and violence throughout. It doesn't offend me at all but I knew my wife wouldn't like it and I understand why, so I mention it here just in case.

El Topo is a complex story with many odd details as well as many religious references and metaphors that comment on a larger scale as I noted earlier. I've seen it many times and in my first few viewings I didn't understand it and thought it was entertaining but pretentious. It is not pretentious. Microcosmically, El Topo is a film about a human being finding himself, and finding out all alone what it means to be alive. It is about independently becoming a good man as a good man is defined in the eyes of Alejandro Jodorowsky. It is obviously a deeply personal film for its director and it may not touch on elements personal to everyone in its audience, but it definitely did for me. Jodorowsky invokes religious references as a vehicle to express his own torments and challenges and how the enlightment experience for El Topo is merely mirroring his own experiences. It's commentary addresses oceans of issues in many layers. Conjuring up the imagination to produce this web of ideas so alive is indeed an ambitious undertaking. I find El Topo to be profoundly inspiring in a way that few films are. Its significance alone should at least justify one viewing for you and I hope you get the same satisfaction that I did. Perhaps you will like it enough to enjoy El Topo again and again.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 16, 2012 9:54:58 AM PDT
which begs the question, why doesnt the killing of real animals offend you at all?

Posted on Mar 19, 2012 7:49:26 AM PDT
K. Driscoll says:
I'm disappointed that it begs only that question but in retrospect the writing there isn't ideal. I'll say that the idea of how these things "(don't) offend me at all" was meant to be applied more so toward the violence and nudity. So yeah, I suppose killing of real animals does offend me some and I'm glad it isn't practiced as often as it seemed to have been in some films of that time and prior.

In reply to an earlier post on May 10, 2013 10:40:46 PM PDT
Don says:
Lame response. What he did to those animals is a criminal offense in the civilized world. This is an animal snuff film, and nothing can redeem it. Everything else in it is irrelevant.
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