Alejandro Jodorowsky’s controversial 1970 film, El Topo (The Mole), is widely credited with kick-starting the “midnight movie” trend. With its hallucinatory imagery and over-the-top sex and violence, Jodorowsky’s allegorical tale of a gunslinger’s quest for enlightenment became an underground sensation, filling arthouse theaters and making the rounds on bootlegged videotapes for decades. Now, what many consider Jodorowsky’s most visually accomplished and thematically important film makes its Blu-ray debut, courtesy of Anchor Bay.
Black clad gunslinger, El Topo (Jodorowsky), and his naked seven year old son (played by Jodorowsky’s real-life son, Brontis) arrive at a remote spot in the Mexican desert where the father orders the son to bury both his first toy and a photograph of his mother, foreshadowing the innocence the boy is about to leave behind. As they ride off, they happen upon a town; its streets literally running red with the blood of murdered men, woman, and children. El Topo and his son wade through the dead townsfolk and the bloated carcasses of their slaughtered livestock, finding a single survivor who begs to be put out of his misery. El Topo hands the gun to his son, and, with the cold detachment of a good gunfighter, the boy fires without hesitation.
It’s not long before El Topo and his son encounter three of the men responsible for the carnage. They’re at first taunted by the banditos, who then challenge El Topo to a showdown. The gunslinger makes quick work of two of the men, and chases after the third, forcing him to reveal the whereabouts of the rest of his gang, before killing him. El Topo and his son then make their way to a Franciscan monastery where The Colonel (David Silva) and his men are having their way with the settlers and monks who live there, including Mara (Mara Lorenzio), a beautiful young woman who The Colonel has taken a liking to. Just as The Colonel’s about to share Mara with his men, El Topo arrives, and humiliates The Colonel in front of his own men before castrating him. The rest of the banditos are dispatched by the liberated settlers, leaving El Topo and his son free to move on. Mara, however, forces El Topo to take her with him and, in turn, El Topo leaves his son behind to be raised by the monks.
Mara and El Topo make a life for themselves in the harsh desert, with El Topo teaching the girl his mystical ways of survival. Mara begins to question El Topo’s love for her, however, and tells him that to prove his love he must kill the four great gun masters of the desert. Only then will he be the greatest gun master in the land, and only then will she accept that he loves her. El Topo obliges, but his quest for greatness ultimately becomes one of self-discovery and redemption.
El Topo, like the lion’s share of formalist cinema, is a visually driven piece, filled with striking, sometimes sickening imagery, all manner of religious symbolism, and garishly-dressed and bizarre characters. As would become common practice in his films, Jodorowsky populates the world of El Topo with real-life “freaks” of all shapes and size (El Topo’s dwarf lover, the armless gun masters), while exploring such then-taboo themes as transexuality (the gorgeous female gunfighter with the male voice), transvestism (the Felliniesque banditos, with their fey behavior, makeup, and frilly attire), and homosexuality (the banditos’ implied rape of the young Franciscan monks). Just as with Jodorowsky’s liberal use of blood and sex, these elements are all highly stylized and greatly exaggerated as to evoke extreme reactions from his audience, but it proved too much for mainstream consumption. The film eventually surfaced in midnight viewings where it found itself embraced by both counterculture icons like Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and John Lennon, the latter of whom thought so highly of the work that he convinced his Apple Corps label to distribute El Topo and, summarily, produce the film’s follow-up, The Holy Mountain. A business disagreement between Jodorowsky and Apple president, Allen Klein, resulted in both El Topo and The Holy Mountain being pulled from public viewing for the next three decades, but, thanks to bootleg VHS copies of the film, the film’s notoriety grew. It wasn’t until Anchor Bay’s 1997 DVD release that El Topo (along with Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and Fando y Lis) was finally made available for mass consumption. By this time, Jodorowsky’s influence on other formalist filmmakers, such as David Lynch, as well as artists and musicians like Marilyn Manson, was readily apparent, and El Topo was unleashed upon a whole new generation of cineastes.
It’s only fitting that Anchor Bay would also be the company to carry El Topo into the realm of HD, and, with their Blu-ray release of the film, they do a splendid job, indeed. Presented in a 1.34:1 aspect ratio, Anchor Bay’s transfer is an exceptionally clean one, with sharp contrast, and vivid colors. Detail is best displayed in the myriad close-up shots, but there is a somewhat jarring lack of grain, here, that gives some scenes an almost painterly type look (a common and mostly undesirable side effect of excess digital noise reduction). Bear in mind that the transfer was personally supervised by Jodorowsky, so this is the film as he wants you to see it., but I have to admit that It’s mildly distracting at times, especially in the latter half of the film where more of the action takes place in dark interiors where the image gets a bit “blotchy”. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is mostly confined to the front of the house, which makes me wonder why Anchor Bay didn’t simply opt for a lossless mono or stereo track. The sound quality is good, for the most part, with clear dialogue and well-separated spatial effects, but the overall track lacks punch and depth.
Extras include a fantastically engaging commentary from Jodorowsky (in Spanish w/ English Subs) who proves to be quite the conversational commentator, offering interesting tidbits about the production and the film’s reception. Here he’s quite charming and disarmingly self-effacing; hardly what one would expect from such a notoriously eccentric character. Other bonus features include a short on-camera interview with the director, a photo gallery (HD) and the film’s theatrical trailer (HD).
El Topo is a difficult film to review in the traditional sense as it’s so open to interpretation that everyone takes something different away upon viewing it. It’s not a conventional film by any means, let alone a western, so anyone looking for a Clint Eastwood style shoot-em-up would best be served looking elsewhere. Fans of formalist cinema, however, know this film and its reputation, and will want to add this to their Blu-ray collection. While Jodorowsky’s choices for the transfer are sure to ignite some controversy with purists, the film really does look quite fetching in HD despite the lack of grain and occasional hint of excess tinkering, and therefore earns my recommendation.