Quickie Review: EL TOPO

I have a theory that there aren’t enough trigger warnings in the world when it comes to describing classic cult Mouvement panique films. But in the case of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary 1970 “acid Western” El Topo, let’s try.

For anyone who intends to watch this film, then TW: depictions and descriptions of extreme violence, rape, genital mutilation, incest, child abuse, ableism, sexism, racism, some trans… eh, fuck it, I give.

No, this isn’t a go at trigger warnings. It’s an acknowledgement that this is a film made at a time and place where ideas such as, say, using part of your film budget to make fake dead animals when you could just go kill some real ones were considered ludicrous–oh, which reminds me, TW: animal cruelty.

El Topo is precisely the kind of art that causes critics of all kinds to have to choose sides: Is the film easily dismissed for its depictions of sacrilegious, violent, depraved, misogynistic, and generally unsavory behavior, or is it an artist’s expression, whose license allows, even demands the right to strategically depict sacrilege, violence, depravity, misogyny, etc. to be utilized as tools? Either way, the promise of this movie has been fulfilled–I have been thoroughly mind-fucked. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to have seen it during its heyday as the “first midnight movie.”

When you consider the world and the characters Jodorowsky created for El Topo, from the surrealistic representations of spiritual seekers and gurus as gunfighters, to the graphic (and I mean extremely graphic) metaphors about both the noble and depraved state of men, women, society, organized religion–might as well just say, “the whole world”–and then consider the questions the film puts forth about problems of mindfully attempting to navigate this condition in a spiritual manner… well, that’s the mind-fuck.

Interesting note: I’m not going to say Jodo had any influence on Bruce Lee of all people (although it’s a line of thought worth pursuing one day, given that Jodo’s work really did influence a LOT, cf. Jodorowsky’s Dune), but Jodo shows a progression to enlightenment similar to the progression Bruce Lee outlined at the end of his unfinished film The Game of Death, expressed as the need to symbolically defeat representations of old belief systems. (Except, where gunfighting is merely the symbol Jodo uses, Lee attempts to show the close integration of the martial and the spiritual.)

Anyway, did the character of El Topo manage to navigate his path and achieve enlightenment? All I can say is this: at first, I thought this movie was about a particular man’s search for spirituality gone horribly wrong. Instead, it’s about man who, with conviction, devotion, dumb luck, by hook and by crook, actually does manage a measure of enlightenment. His response to that enlightenment is horrific… but utterly and completely understandable.

Mind. Fucked.