If you’re familiar with the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s you’ll be no stranger to the strange and hallucinatory imagery which characterises his filmmaking style. Amongst his best known classics, namely his 1970 acid western El Topo and 1989 avant-garde circus horror Santa Sangre, lies The Holy Mountain. The film, which was Jodorowsky’s third feature length picture, in some ways defies description, breaking down taboos and making cinematic history, going on to stand the test of time as a major influence for a host of modern day filmmakers and visual artists. Having enjoyed such a profoundly memorable and transfixing experience in viewing the film, I’m sure I’ll be joining a long line of people who are keen to discuss the film’s beautiful, disturbing, and lingering presence, and why it remains such a cornerstone of surrealist cinema.
As can be said for much of Jodorowsky’s work, The Holy Mountain utilises its absurdity to catapult its central themes of growth, evolution and metamorphosis to the forefront of the audience’s attention. It follows an enigmatic Christ figure on his journey to the titular mountain amongst a ramshackle crowd of eight other ‘wise men’, led by Jodorowsky himself as their Mexican spiritual leader. Rife with juxtaposed horror and beauty, the film is an exercise in total visual unpredictability, arresting and masterfully-framed shots, and vibrant, acidic colours which elevate its magical and otherworldly quality.
The film often entirely transcends its medium, not only in terms of its breathtaking cinematography, but quite literally at times, breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to viewers in such a way that is jarring to even the most surrealism-literature of cinema enthusiasts. The strange and incongruously startling images which characterise Jodorowsky’s style simultaneously keep the audience at arm’s length due to the sheer horror of some of the stories behind each disciple, whilst also drawing them deeper into the transfixing journey embarked on by the wise men: cerebral, visceral, primal cinema, decorated with vivid colour, utterly original storytelling and layer after layer of ambiguous meaning. The Holy Mountain presents a world that is difficult to enter and even harder to withdraw from, with every intoxicating frame resembling one of Dalí’s later paintings.
Whilst The Holy Mountain certainly falls into the realms of Jodorowsky’s more accessible works, it nonetheless demands viewers to take on a fair share of the work in terms of interpreting the journey of each disciple, and centrally the spiritual Christ figure through whose eyes the events of the story are unveiled. Whether the viewer is left awestruck by the often grotesque but frequently gorgeous imagery Jodorowsky etches into each frame, or dismisses the experience altogether, is dependent on the individual and their willingness to filter through the many allegorical ideas the film puts forward concerning faith, spirituality and emotional endurance. It’s as if Jodorowsky isn’t pointing the viewer toward one central, comprehensive idea about faith, but rather sets up a warped and unsettling backdrop through which his audience, much like his characters, can veer off at tangents according to their own primitive reactions.
Jodorowsky makes frequent use of a Kubrick-esque one-point focus in his shots, drawing the eye hypnotically to whatever symbolic mise-en-scene he wants the viewer to consider. This makes for a film that is often difficult to look away from, no matter how much your senses might be pulling you to at times. With one of the most amusing, infuriating, intelligent and unexpected endings I can recall watching in 1970s cinema, Jodorowsky proves himself once again as a truly masterful surrealist filmmaker, utilising his sense of irony, great spiritual ponderings and unmatched visual style to toy with his audience and their perception of film as an art form, as well as their own existence. Much like his other works, The Holy Mountain seems to emerge from a place of necessity: Jodorowsky’s need to fuse his own internal narrative with the possibilities yielded by camera, and ask his audience to see their own surroundings with the same vibrancy.