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The Holy Mountain (1973) is a surreal fantasy film split into three acts. The first part of the film follows a young thief who performs as Jesus Christ in reenactments in a debaucherous Latin American city. In the second part of the film, he meets the Alchemist who introduces him to a group of people from different planets all seeking enlightenment. The final part of the film features the Thief and the other recruits on a journey to Lotus Island so they can ascend the Holy Mountain and find the secret to enlightenment.
Though El Topo is far from the most popular experimental films of the 1970s, those it reached were extremely vital to the career of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Two members of the Beatles, George Harrison and John Lennon, both lent their public support to the film. Lennon declared it a masterpiece and was so enamored with Jodorowsky that he gave him almost $1 million to do with as he pleased. With that money, Jodorowsky created his most visually ambitious work to date, The Holy Mountain. The film features many of the same themes of enlightenment and social critique that is present in El Topo, but with much more striking visuals and makes the audience more than a mere spectator. The film opens with the Alchemist stripping and shaving two women as a symbolic ritual before the narrative of the film begins. Before we can accept the story, we have to strip away the makeup and the materialism. No area of our world is safe from Jodorowsky’s condemnation.
Jodorowsky begins this spiritual journey with a serious social critique of Mexican society. The first part of the film takes place in a hyper-sexed and hyper-capitalistic version of what seems to be Mexico City. Here, everything from history, religion, and sex is sold. Mannequin Christs are produced by the dozen and the brutal conquest of Mexico is turned into a show for tourists in which an emcee donning a swastika on his hat, introduces a replica Mayan kingdom with lizards playing the part of the natives and frogs playing the part of the Spanish. With this, Jodorowsky creates an equality of absurdity as both the natives and the Spanish are animals. This folie a deux is shown throughout the film. Mexican soldiers take part in tourist sexual fantasies by forcing themselves on them in a crowd and prisoners dance cheek to cheek with their own guards clad in gas masks.
Jodorowsky creates a world that seeks to elevate the violence and satire of that of Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, with the thief and his disabled friend making for an apt visual comparison to the 1950s film’s motley crew. The thief’s Christ performances heighten the job of the beggar and make the satire hard to watch. It’s a simple task, just get pelted by rocks and nailed to a cross and somebody might also throw you some coins. The inherent cruelty of the city is exacerbated by their reenactment of the Tlatelolco Massacre. This time it’s not something the state decides to sweep under the carpet, but instead, they use it as a show for tourists who crowd the fresh corpses and clamor to get the best shot. Worse than poverty porn, it’s atrocity porn. The deaths of young activists become an attraction for white tourists not just on Earth but on the planet Neptune as well where we see a similar reenactment of the massacre. The only difference is the guts of the victims are anything but human. Candy falls from most of their stomachs rather than intestines.
Not just in Mexico, but across all planets, the elites of the world look at the suffering of the rest as a kind of game. In the second part of his film, Jodorowsky invites the audience to look into the lives of the elites of the solar system and see that Latin America is not the source of moral degradation. As the Alchemist introduces the heavyweights of the solar systems he announces to the Thief that these are thieves just like him but on a larger scale. They may be richer and more developed but they are exactly the same. In fact, unlike Latin America which has problems thrust upon them by other cultures ie their religion, and colonization, elites fight much more ridiculous battles against monsters of their own invention.
On Venus, we meet a businessman specializing in the beauty industry. His innovative ideas force people to think they need to buy plastic molds of the perfect body parts and even in death, people get technological makeovers so their corpses can remain animated to kiss their mourners, bless themselves, or even have sex. The modern world’s obsession with robots is severely ridiculed by Jodorowsky when on another planet, it is revealed a sex toy magnate has created a giant robot vagina that is stimulated by a giant metal rod. Upon climax, the machine opens up and a robot baby is born, allowing the cycle of love to continue.
These problems and anxieties are laughable, but when Jodorowsky reveals how they export their own distorted ideals to Latin America, we begin to sadly understand how a Tlatelolco can occur. On one planet, we see a woman dressed as a clown entertaining children. Though she seems silly and harmless, she is revealed to be a businesswoman in the war toy industry. With policy-programmed computers, she can predict which country her government will be at war with, in this case, Peru. She makes comic books, laxatives, and evil indigenous dolls to not only prepare the future generations to fight the Peruvian people but enjoy doing it. On another planet, this task is taken up for adult audiences where guns for all religions are sold and even the less traditional counterculture movement folks can rock out with a guitar gun. Not only can the elite export death, but they can make it seem like a fun tool.
In a Jodorowsky movie, however, you always wonder where politics fail, spirituality might succeed. In this film, the answer is not so simple. Jodorowsky provides reverence for his own invented rituals and ridicule for the real ones. The Alchemist’s cleaning rituals are serious as is the odd and violent castration ritual in Neptune. However, when turning the Thief’s excrement into gold, the Alchemist first wraps his hands and arms in strips of paper with words on them making a parallel to the Jewish practice of wrapping oneself in the text of the Torah. This serious ritual is transformed into something blasphemous. Reverence for the ridiculous and ridicule for the revered strips both acts of any meaning. Traditional spirituality, according to Jodorowsky, cannot bring enlightenment.
But neither can the new wave religions or ideas readily adopted by the counterculture movement. When the Alchemist assembles his team, they engage in new rituals and focus on making a collective being rather than a group of individuals so that they can successfully traverse the Holy Mountain on Lotus Island. It seems like a revolutionary act but they are far from the first to attempt this task. Once on the island, they come across others who abandoned their plans to enjoy themselves at the Pantheon Bar. There, a giant hippie party takes place. They distract themselves with their own art and say that that is true enlightenment. It’s a necessary takedown of those who feel that listening to Jimi Hendrix is akin to burning a draft card.
But after spending nearly the entire film lambasting or writing off political, societal, and religious practices, Jodorowsky offers an unexpected solution. After conquering their fears and obsessions on the mountain, they seem ready to confront the keepers of the secrets to enlightenment, when the Alchemist sadly sends the Thief back. The rest of the group prepare to attack and find that the figures on the hill are all mannequins except for one, the Alchemist himself in disguise. In a fourth wall break for the ages, he reveals that not only was the journey a ruse, but the entire world is a fantasy. He orders the cameras to zoom out and reveal a film crew surrounding them. As he says, “We are images, dreams, photographs, We must not stay here. Prisoners! We shall break the illusion! This is Maya! Goodbye to the Holy Mountain. Real life awaits us.”
In his own way, this is a happy ending for Jodorowsky. He reveals that enlightenment can be found away from the usual spots. Away from the Holy Mountain we can live a real life and find meaning in our own struggles. Not just the characters in the film, but us, the audience are invited to achieve this goal. This fourth wall reveal turns even the early departure of the Thief into a positive. By accepting the Alchemist’s request, he rejects the Holy Mountain and chooses real life, and goes off with a woman he knew from the city who had been closely following the group. Maybe on his journey with her, untethered to false prophets and away from the hierarchical and exploitative nature of the city, he can find a kind of peace that others can only dream of.