Could Alejandro Jodorowsky’s phantasmagoria of bizarre imagery, overflowing in movies like “El Topo” (1970), “The Holy Mountain” (1973), and “Santa Sangre” (1989), have sprung from something as banal as daddy issues? His new quasi-autobiographical film, “The Dance of Reality,” suggests as much. It’s his first feature in 23 years and part of a belated resurgence of the 85-year-old shaman’s career — a revival that also includes the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”
Compared to his previous films, “The Dance of Reality” offers a nearly coherent narrative and a gentle, reconciliatory tone. It lulls the viewer into thinking at times that maybe it does make sense. But then Jodorowsky introduces images such as a woman invoking God as she urinates on her husband to cure him of plague. Or we see a child tossing a rock into the sea and creating a tidal wave, which produces an inundation of fish, followed by a descent of ravenous gulls reminiscent of “The Birds,” and finally an army of starving peasants who scare away the gulls and devour the fish. It makes sense, in the way that a nightmare makes sense.
The film begins with the white-haired, bearded, sage-like Jodorowsky, after an epigrammatic disquisition on the ambivalent morality of money, returning to the place of his birth, Tocopilla, Chile, a picturesquely squalid mining town inhabited by symbolic grotesques. Chief among them is Jaime Jodorowsky (played by Alejandro’s son Brontis; this is, in many ways, a family picture), a former circus strongman and current proprietor of a woman’s lingerie shop, whose wife, Sara (Pamela Flores), sings all her dialogue in an operatic soprano.
Jaime fancies himself a communist; he dresses like Stalin and sports the murderous dictator’s mustache and uniform. Like Stalin, his socialist creed does not exclude brutality, as when he beats bloody a bunch of drunken, limbless, maimed mine workers. Nor will he countenance any weakness in his son, Alejandro, whom he slaps whenever the boy innocently suggests that God exists. But after Alejandro doesn’t whimper when his father belts him and breaks a tooth, or later when the dentist repairs it without anesthesia, Jaime accepts that his boy might be a man after all.
So there’s enough material for any genius to transform into a dozen midnight movies, and we haven’t even gotten to the scene in which Alejandro and his mother dance together naked covered in boot black. Fans will recognize many motifs that have recurred throughout Jodorowsky’s half century of moviemaking — the Felliniesque circus and demonically possessed hands of “Santa Sangre,” the army of diseased and deformed pariahs in “El Topo,” and don’t even get me started on “The Magic Mountain.” But some images stand out on their own, as when the aged Alejandro stops his younger self from jumping to his death. Or when the boy and old man sail out to sea, and are absorbed into whiteness.
It seems elegiacal, but don’t count out Jodorowsky yet. He has a sequel to “El Topo” already in the works.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.