In his first feature in 23 years, Alejandro Jodorowsky seeks the roots of his confrontational art in childhood memory 

Nostalgia for the Darkness

Nostalgia for the Darkness

Whether you like his films or not, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky is largely responsible for the modern concept of the midnight movie. In the early '70s, his films El Topo and The Holy Mountain were among the first contemporary cult hits to play to a countercultural audience. For many people, they don't play so well without clouds of pot smoke. But when I worked at a video store and customers asked me to recommend something weird, The Holy Mountain was my first choice.

As one can see from the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, which played The Belcourt earlier this year, Jodorowsky still talks like a hippie at 84. The '60s left a deep mark on him — which isn't always positive, as he talks about rape in a cavalier, pre-feminist manner. But it's refreshing to hear him speak about cinema in such unfashionably idealistic terms. His ambitious attempt to film Frank Herbert's novel failed, and apart from his 1989 film Santa Sangre and its disappointing 1990 follow-up The Rainbow Thief, Jodorowsky turned to comic books and tarot cards instead of filmmaking. The Dance of Reality, which premiered last year at Cannes, is an unexpected and appealing comeback. 

As gold pieces fall before the camera in slow motion, Jodorowsky's first feature in 23 years kicks off with a monologue about money from the director, who appears onscreen a few times alongside the actor playing him as a child. The film then travels to Tocopilia, Chile, and introduces us to the Jodorowsky family in the 1930s. Young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) is an androgynous boy with long blond hair. His father Jaime (played by the director's son Brontis) and mother Sara (Pamela Flores) run a small shop. Sara loves Alejandro, but Jaime bullies him. Away from him, Alejandro wanders around the town, which offers plenty of high strangeness for his young mind to absorb. 

In a film like The Holy Mountain, much of Jodorowsky's imagery is so fanciful that it seems to have no basis in reality. The Dance of Reality makes explicit the autobiographical roots of his work. It's full of outlandish, even grotesque scenes. Echoing El Topo, a gang of amputees — injured in mining disasters — hangs out on the street. Alejandro meets up with circus performers reminiscent of those in Santa Sangre. Alejandro's mother doesn't speak but sings all her dialogue in an operatic voice — a conceit that calls to mind his son Adan's award-winning short "The Voice Thief" (based on a Jodorowsky story).

If there's a difference, it's that Jodorowsky now has access to CGI, and indeed he uses it creatively. But The Dance of Reality is strongest when exploring the tribulations of Jodorowsky's father, and it dedicates its central section to his physical and spiritual journey. A Ukrainian-Jewish communist and atheist who idealizes Stalin, Jaime seems like an irredeemable jerk at first. He's extremely homophobic and dresses in the manner of his Soviet idol; he flushes Alejandro's religious necklaces down the toilet. Eventually, he sets out to assassinate fascist Chilean politician Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, but the misbegotten venture results in torture and a lengthy ordeal. Jaime must challenge his atheism before he can return to his family. 

The Dance of Reality occupies something of the same place in Jodorowsky's filmography that Amarcord did in Fellini's: an autobiographical late-career entrenchment of obsessions, visions and tropes in childhood memory. Its free-flowing surrealism also suggests the influence of Luis Buñuel. But the style here is far showier — this is no one else's movie. Some may dismiss El Topo and The Holy Mountain as '70s relics, but The Dance of Reality shows the extent to which they're grounded in the tumult of 20th century Chilean politics and the director's concrete experiences. Beneath all the circuses and surrealism, it's a son's honest attempt to understand a father who often mistreated him and a country that greeted him with fascism and anti-Semitism. 

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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