Blame it on a lack of sleep or whatever you like, but at around 3:00 AM, when I finished this review, I somehow failed to publish it. I think you will find it not worth the wait.
At first, it seems that El Topo will be a fairly standard narrative film, albeit one made by an individual with an excessive desire to shock the audience: a man all in black, whom we will later know as El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, the director) rides to a spot in the desert, his son (Brontis Jodorowsky, the director's son) holding on the his back. The man gives the boy a teddy bear and a photograph of a woman. "You are seven years old. You are a man now," he says. "Bury your first toy and your mother's picture." At this moment, the viewer - eager for any sort of simple normal thing to cling on to - assumes that the film will be a generational tale about a widower raising his boy in the violent 19th century West, or in Mexico (it's never really made clear). The reason that the viewer is a little bit uncomfortable is that the seven-year-old is not wearing a stitch of clothing, and he's on camera for quite an awful lot of time, and there are laws against making movies like this one nowadays.
Now, laws are one thing, cultural norms another, but it's not very brave of me to suggest that there hasn't been any country in the last 100 years in which filming a seven-year-old wandering around naked would be considered the norm. The degree to which it's a shocking affront to morality is certainly relative, but nowhere would there be an audience whose response would be bland indifference - I think this is mere fact, but if I'm wrong I'd like to be told that. My point being, the appearance of a naked child in the second shot of a film is not an accident; it is a very clear indication that Jodorowsky would like us to be aware from the first moments of his entirely unconventional film that we are under his control now, and he is looking forward very much to fucking with us.
Then comes the opening credit sequence, with reversed-color images of what I presume is a mole, given that the narration over the credits concerns how moles crawl through the dirt to the light (El Topo is Spanish for The Mole). Once these credits have wrapped up, the film abandons the idea of being a narrative film in any reasonable sense of that word, a ruse it kept up for all of four minutes, and what follows is virtually impossible to summarise; though there is a through-line connecting everything that happens for two hours, the experience of El Topo is much less what happens and much more the things you see while it happens, and listing crazy imagery seems to me to be unsporting.
Superficially, the film seems to be the result of somebody thinking that the work of Luis Buñuel needed to include more shocking acts of violence and blasphemy, and the best way to do that would be to focus less on storytelling. That is, this is the Buñuel film for people who think that Buñuel is too sedate. Indeed, the most obvious visual theme in El Topo is its appropriation of Christian iconography for contexts which make Christianity seem hollow and shallow - something that anyone with even a casual knowledge of Buñuel will recognise as a primary tool in his filmmaking kit. But while that filmmaker was largely focused on socio-political ends and his films are thus very brainy, Jodorowsky is much less of an intellectual and much more of a crazed prohpet. Playing a character who looks suggestively like the traditional depictions of Jesus, the director was clearly trying to make a film that chemically-enhanced audiences in the early '70s would ponder for hours late at night, trying to tease out all of the spiritual implications of a film washed in the alternate-spirituality of that period; I particularly noticed the influence of Carlos Castaneda's writing on the mind's ability to direct the physical form of the body.*
If that seems like a polite way of saying that movie is a bit dated, that's about what I wanted it to seem like. But "dated" isn't the same thing as "bad," and while I truly do doubt that the viewer in 2008 will have much use for Jodorowsky's spiritual philosophy, the style with which he expresses that philosophy is often quite exciting. After all, I'm hardly the sort of person likely to say that being "a less sedate Buñuel" is a bad thing. Besides, El Topo invented the very concept of an underground movie, a film made for almost no money and released in tiny theaters (or now, on the festival circuit) until someone important notices it and helps it into wide release - in this case, a role filled by none less than John Lennon. You might even say that this film introduced the modern idea of the indie film, or at least the modern indie distribution format.
I have gotten of track; I'd meant to talk about the style of the film and why it remains so exciting nearly 40 years later. Essentially, El Topo is a film that constantly brushes up against the idea of narrative, only to kill its plotlines midway through, or loose interest in the main narrative line in favor of following its branches. There is first the sense that El Topo thinks of himself as a Zorro type, saving the poor and weak from the excessive cruelty of the military (a connection made stronger by his choice of an animal for his new identity; Topo the Mole as a parody of Zorro the Fox). This comes to a halt when he rescues a beautiful woman (Mara Lorenzio), who demands that he can only win her love by killing the four great gunmen in the desert. Goodbye to the avenger story, hello to the "trying to get the girl" story, except it doesn't take very long before El Topo and El Topo are more interested in the lessons that the four men preach than the theoretical goal of impressing the woman, and eventually he pretty much just leaves her, to end up in a plot about saving a group of deformed people who have been left in a cave by the beautiful people of the local town. That story is quickly consumed by an especially Buñuelian series of vignettes among the cave people and the townsfolk.
In the broadest sense, this is all an allegory for Christ coming to Earth wanting to do good, learning the spiritual truths that he will need to guide him, and then going forth to do good; a very hippie-friendly version of Christ's life it is, too, especially with the anti-organised-religion irony of the ending. I'm not going to try to force that reading on anybody, and I've refused to read or listen to any Jodorowsky's many commentaries on what the film "actually" means - just because a film is top-to-bottom symbolism doesn't mean that it's not just as susceptible to the Intentional Fallacy as anything else. I am here not to praise the film's meaning anyway; I'm much more interested in the way it moves through its narrative, sort of phase-by-phase, and the way that Jodorowsky lets his themes constantly overwhelm his story. It almost seems at times like the concept of the arthouse film observing itself; though El Topo is a catalogue of traditionally "arty" things for movies to do, with its religious symbolism and lack of narrative and lengthy patches of no dialogue and characters without names, but it's also constantly trying to be a regular ol' Western picture, a tale of a gunslinger saving the whomever. Coming at the end of the '60s, this tension between arthouse and multiplex storytelling is given an extra boost of meaning that nobody could have imagined at the time.
All considerations of how El Topo treats narrative aside, there's one thing that I would be a fool to ignore, and that is the unbelievably beautiful cinematography by Rafael Corkidi. The color saturation in this film is almost unbearably intense, yet the palette is extremely limited: mostly the blue of the sky, the tan of the sand, the red of blood and the black of El Topo himself. Something about seeing a film of this vintage look as clean and colorful as it does seems entirely wrong - imagine if someone in the late 1990s was using three-strip Technicolor and you've prety much imagined what it looks like- and that ends up making the film seem more otherworldly than anything in its narrative or surreal imagery can do. It looks like a film literally not of its time. All the spiritual musing and surreal imagery in the world can't equal that, and the cumulative effect is to make El Topo one of the very few films about mysticism that actually seems plausibly tapped into the metaphysical.