Alexandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film The Holy Mountain is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen. How can I describe it? Perhaps it’s best not to, and allow you to experience it on your own. To summarize: I found it interesting, funny, stupid, profound, beautiful, clumsy, and unique. Now I’m reluctant to watch his other films.
It is blessed and cursed with hippie avant-gardism – nudity and scatology as daring or transgressive – which has not always aged well. Its religious and sacrilegious imagery cancel each other out. And there are no shades of characterization; everything is symbolic, and therefore abstract. The Thief, around whom the movie revolves, is as blank as a third-rate icon, but rather less meaningful.
The symbolism is, at its best, obscure, which is good. Why is the Thief crucified by small boys? Do they represent Mankind’s innocence? (“…for they know not what they do”?) And why are the children naked except for fig leaves? Are they marked as fallen, post-Eden , or is it a concession to public opinion? Jodorowsky abandoned a scene later in the film that was to include a naked child (a girl) for fear of being accused of pedophilia. And that’s just the beginning. The Thief does not stay dead, of course.
To summarize the plot: the Thief joins up with an Alchemist, played by Jodorowsky himself. The Alchemist is training a group to find the Holy Mountain written of in so many mythologies, the mountain atop which live the Immortals. There they shall learn the secret of eternal life. Each of the Alchemist’s students is introduced with a sequence explaining (I guess) their current life. Satire of various sorts, sexual, political, etc., ensues.
The best joke in the film comes during one such sequence: the comic book “Captain Captain versus the Peruvian Monster.”
My favorite imagery: Lut, the Architect, one of the pupils, being pursued by children in mouse costumes through a strikingly modern building. Why children in mouse costumes – or are they supposed to be real mice? Who knows. Just enjoy the swooping, whirling lines of the building. It’s lovely, and over all too soon.
The Holy Mountain manages to strike an uneasy balance between careful planning, and a sense that they made it up as they went along. Presenting the pupils in this way reminded me or Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) except that in Wonka the children are defined by broad character traits, whereas the Alchemist’s pupils are defined by their jobs – which ultimately do not matter, as they play no part in the story.
I do seem to be praising with very loud damns, but I did enjoy the film. Really. I did.
First surprise (for me): They locate the Mountain on Lotus Island, and travel there. At the Mountain’s base are all the travelers who got that far but no farther, distracted by worldly temptations. Amid the vendors hawking their wares (distractions of food, wine, etc.) is a speaker comparing religious states to drug-induced experiences. “The Cross was a mushroom..” and such like. I thought, Oh, here we go. All this trippy imagery; I should have known. But the drug prophet is played comically, though not broadly, and the Alchemist and his pupils dismiss him and move quickly on.
For the other surprise you have to read the spoilers.
SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you wish to be surprised by the ending.
The Alchemist and his followers reach Lotus Island and ascend the Mountain; near the top the Alchemist leaves them, saying they no longer need a master. At the top they find the table with the Immortals seated around it – but the Immortals are nothing but mannequins in robes, except for one, who turns out to be the Alchemist. I’m not quite sure what to make of that, though everyone laughs. Then (the second surprise) the Alchemist addresses the camera:
“We began in a fairytale and we came to life, but is this life reality? No. It is a film. Zoom back camera! (Camera pulls back to reveal crew, lighting, etc.) We are images, dreams, photographs. We must not stay here. Prisoners! We shall break the illusion. This is magic. Goodbye to theHolyMountain. Real life awaits us.”
They overturn the table and leave. A surprisingly meta moment, breaking the fourth wall when I fully expected the fantasy to continue. The nearest counterpart comes a few years later, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) when modern day and medieval drama overlap – but that was done for comic effect, and introduced before the end of the film. Perhaps Jodorowsky’s plans had gone awry – an idea to close the film with a woman giving birth fell through – but it works surprisingly well. The stylized sets and limited characterizations heighten the sense of theater, the feeling that what you are watching is not real. When that unreality is acknowledged, like actors taking their bows at the end of a play, it provides a smoother segue back to the outside world. You do not feel like you have just dropped out of the sky, but rather have landed in the plane with all the other passengers, and disembarked. Normality can be banal, but Jodorowsky’s final speech suggests greater quests out in the real world.