The Dance of Reality
Although there is no shortage of either surrealism or black humour in The Dance of Reality, those cultish fans of Alejandro Jodorowsky who swear by El Topo (1970) or Santa sangre (1989) may be a little puzzled by the director’s first film in 23 years.
Despite the presence of a gang of disabled ex-workers, queer circus clowns, murder (of human and animal), and a golden shower sex scene, this is a relatively quiet, calm and reflective work for Jodorowsky – inaugurating, on screen, a series of autobiographical recreations that he has since continued in a sequel, Endless Poetry (2016).
It’s the 1930s. In the wake of the Wall Street Crash, much of Chile has been scarred by poverty, unemployment and misery. Young Alejandro (Jeremías Herskovits) lives in the village of Tocopilla with his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky) and mother Sara (Pamela Flores). The town is characterised by its closed businesses, crippled workers, a circus, and a fire brigade. Alejandro is mocked and humiliated by the other children for his Jewishness.
Jaime, a stern authoritarian, worships Stalin and forces Alejandro to follow a code of stoic manhood, while Sara dreams of being an opera star and never stops singing. As part of a radical collective, Jaime decides he must travel to Santiago and kill President Carlos Ibáñez (Bastián Bodenhöfer). On the first try, he gives his gun to a comrade who fails; and on the second, his hands become permanently paralysed. Returning to Tocopilla after an amnesiac period in another village, and also becoming an inadvertent hero for resisting torture, Jaime begs forgiveness and reunites with his wife and son.
For those who have faithfully followed Jodorowsky’s multi-faceted career since the 1990s, however, this filmed version of The Dance of Reality – covering only the childhood section of his 2001 literary autobiography of the same name – will serve both as catch-up and continuation.
Since the 1990s, Jodorowsky has become a celebrated psychomagician, exploring a method of shamanistic therapy that brings together many formative experiences in his life (hence the presence in the film of a wise and playful Theosophist, played by Jodorowsky’s son and psychoshamanist, Cristóbal).
Psychomagic – which encourages and facilitates transformation of the self, and of reality itself, through the power of imagination – goes hand in hand, in Jodorowsky’s system, with psychogenealogy: the patient drawing of a family tree that, if explored sensitively, will pinpoint the neuroses and blocks that have been handed down through a family’s generations to the uncomprehending individual.
Liberation from such problems demands (in a further loop back to Jodorowsky’s young-adult origins as a performance artist in Santiago and Paris) an often extreme, symbolic acting-out in the form of a theatrical, ritual gesture.
The film of The Dance of Reality offers, for all intents and purposes, Jodorowsky’s personal, therapeutic, psychogenealogical ritual; he calls it “a kind of family healing”. By casting his son Brontis as his father Jaime (alongside many other family members in smaller roles), Jodorowsky sets the stage for a controlled, restorative, often very humorous psychodrama. “Everything is true, or almost”, says the writer-director – and everything hinges on that almost.
Beginning from the real facts and situations of his early life, Jodorowsky gives himself license to materialise the inner dreams of his characters – not as discrete fantasy sequences, but as core elements of the plot and mise en scène.
So Jaime – in an elaborate narrative intrigue airlifted from Jodorowsky’s 1999 novel Black Thursday’s Child, and taking up much of the film’s second half – heroically sails away from home with a mission to kill the horrendous President Ibáñez; while Sara, a frustrated opera singer, has her entire allotment of dialogue lines set to an orchestral score.
Young Alejandro is also occasionally accompanied – in what are undoubtedly the film’s most moving and lyrical moments – by Jodorowsky (character name “Old Alejandro”) as he is today, a remarkably vital guy in his mid 80s, putting the dark fears of childhood into verse, or imploring the boy not to hurl himself off a cliff.
Other striking scenes – such as when Sara strips off and paints both herself and her son pitch black, in order to overcome night terror – are materialised in a fuzzy space somewhere between recollection and wish-fulfilment.
Psychomagic and psychogenealogy come together in the moment when Sara ultimately confronts Jaime with his love/hate ambivalence for authoritarian figures, via three large photo-portraits: Stalin, Ibáñez, and himself. It is only in shooting the gun at himself (as it were) as well as his idols, and melodramatically setting his past attachments aflame, can he be freed.
In the next instalment of this filmic autobiography Alejandro, too, will need to leave home in order to begin the long, transformative journey back to his origins. It is a pity that, in one key respect, Jodorowsky’s work replays the conventionality of a given, mythic template: it’s the guys who get to embark on odysseys and find themselves, while mama stays at home and sings her big heart out.
Jodorowsky reaches beyond the purely personal or familial to large, universal themes in The Dance of Reality: the constant seesaw between “suffering and relief” in life (given many vivid, small-scale, parable-like illustrations); and the deluded nature of all fanatical, political ideologies, whether of the left or right.
The notes of satire on this latter theme are sometimes sounded in an overly facile and repetitive manner – Jodorowsky occasionally exhibits a tendency to reprise his best ideas beyond their endurance limit. Intriguingly, his customised form of magical realism here comes to resemble, more than anything else, the recent work of Terrence Malick.
Stylistically, the film has a touchingly simple, sometimes amateurish manner, akin to the genre of naïve painting – a trait indelibly caught in the charming, B movie-style digital effects of buildings (and people) on fire.
Where Jodorowsky’s earlier films revelled in their untrained, art brut approach, this one sets out less to shock or provoke than to evoke the purity and innocence of childhood emotions: shame, loneliness, fear, wonder, the cry for love and human connection. “Something is dreaming us”, counsels today’s Alejandro to his former self – and in a much less Gothic register than we get in, say, David Lynch’s cinema. “Embrace the illusion. Live!”
© Adrian Martin August 2015