The grand old dirty pope of midnight-movie voodoo and post-'60s turn-on, drop-out mythopoeia returns with a vengeance, in his autumnal phase and with, surprise, a personal look backward at his own childhood. The Dance of Reality may be Alejandro Jodorowsky's best film, and certainly, in a filmography top-heavy with freak-show hyperbole and symbology stew, the one most invested in narrative meaning. Now a spring-chicken 84, Jodorowsky stands as a kind of anti-master, doggedly and self-seriously making the insane kinds of movies only pharma-busy teenagers might want to watch and imitate, and yet, by now, his absurd struggle has attained a kind of pulpy grandeur. Newbies should start at the beginning, with Fando & Lis (1968), and work chronologically, because Jodorowsky has been nothing if not a psychotropic kink in the global pop culture continuum, and therefore integral to what it has become in the last half-century. Every inch the graybeard valedictory, The Dance of Reality has something El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) did not — the graceful clarity of a fairy tale.
Or, rather, a Marquezian magical realism populated by the familiar Jodorowsky carnival of animals, dwarfs, amputees, clowns, shamans and endomorphs. Jodorowsky was born in the small seaside Chilean village of Tocopilla, and that's where he returned to shoot his memoir-movie, turning the town into a circus. Naked beggars paint themselves with Asian glyphs and limbless mine workers lollygag in crutch-carrying gangs rapping about the risks of dynamite. Raised in his émigré parents' undergarment shop, 9-year-old Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) is torn between his sadistic and homophobic father (Brontis Jodorowsky), who rabidly tries to toughen the little softie up with abuse, and his dreamy, bosomy mother (Pamela Flores), who, in a self-conscious master stroke, sings all of her lines in an operatic soprano. True to the title, reality is a non-issue, as are time and history. Everything is shaped by the boy's beleaguered but dazzled subjectivity, and by the way memory distorts truth. Jodorowsky himself even appears, in suave most-interesting-man mode, narrating to us in cryptic pronouncements about the chasm between what we see and what actually is.
It's best to take the movie's shotgun metaphysics as yet another subjective tangent, and go with the tall-tale-telling, most of which focuses on the tortured father's odyssey to overcompensate for his son's perceived cowardice. The ordeal only begins with the father's courageous attempt to bring water to a pilgrimage of several hundred dying plague victims (marching in black over the sandy hills, one of Jodorowsky's most bewitching visuals), only to have his pack donkeys eaten by the crowd. Infected, he is summarily saved by his devout wife, who in one epic shot howls an aria to God for his life as she squats and pees on his blistered body, curing him.
From there, Alejandro's father is persecuted as a Communist and Jew, plots to assassinate the then-dictator Ibáñez (who only held power for a few years), ends up becoming the groom for the president's beloved horse, suffers amnesia, wakes up a vagabond cared for by a pious hunchback who loves him, and eventually finds God. Then the Nazis show up, and the Resistance, dressed in '60s garb and armed with electrical torture devices. (Brontis, Jodorowsky fils, endures a Tough Mudder obstacle course of suffering, mostly sans clothes.) As always, Jodorowsky's dalliance with politics is rather child-like, but here it works, because everything is manifested from a child's point of view, grappling with the irrational appetites of adults.
To some degree it's late Fellini in Patagonia, and for many that's an out-of-season flavor not due for re-evaluation. More than that, Jodorowsky is still constitutionally unable to conceive or stage scenes in which characters believably speak to each other — "character" per se doesn't exist, only metaphoric roles, suggesting or augmenting some vaguely expressed mystical idea. The story doesn't unfurl fluidly so much as get acted out in chunks. (Jodorowsky started out as a mime.) But Flores disrupts the filmmaker's dream world. Zaftig, fearless and passionately committed (even though she alone is belting out dialogue in song), Flores is a titanic, slightly deranged wonder, and her Sara Jodorowsky might be the most convincing and stirring performance in the filmmaker's career, a landscape where everything (and everyone) else is only iconic.
Jodorowsky thinks primarily in disconnected images, and while some are simply goofy, others (a tidal wave's ironic gift of sardines, the nude Mom covering herself and her nyctophobic son with black shoe polish, the dock tableau with black-and-white cutouts of the film's characters) are disarmingly lovely. The Dance of Reality shouldn't be anyone's indoctrination to El Maestro, but as a sweet, inventive coda to one of film culture's unique and defiant careers, it's a welcome thing.