The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain ★★★★★

r/Letterboxd - Film Club 025 - Surrealist Cinema

If Fando Y Lis is Jodorowsky looking back to his surrealist theatrical work, and El Topo is him looking outwards to contemporary and genre cinema, then The Holy Mountain is Jodorowsky looking into to the future.

After the success of El Topo, Jodorowsky secured funding from The Beatles' manager Allen Klein after both John Lennon and George Harrison declared their great admiration for Jodorowsky's work. Arguably his most personal film, Alejandro had more involvement with the production and costume design of this film, and oh boy does it show. With a budget almost 3 times as much as El Topo, Jodorowksy made his most spiritual, lavish, aesthetic film, and every penny spent is up there on the screen visually.

How does one write about The Holy Mountain? It is like trying to empty the sea with a fork. This is a film set in two parts; the primitive world and the mystical world. Filmed in the early 70’s, there is a ton of sociopolitical commentary about the oppression in various Latin American countries; places where democracy had been replaced by authoritarian, military regimes. There is also dense commentary about America at this time. Oblivious to what is truly happening overseas, America played the part of the avid tourist, simply acting as the idle spectator as Latin America undergoes serious tragedy.

Jodorowsky took influence from his own spiritual journey, led by Zen Buddhist master Ejo Takata, and made a film that attempts to heal; a film that was solely created to ‘wake people up’, to gauge true emotional, visceral reactions from audiences. The story is a journey, a search for spiritual enlightenment. Pulling from the world of tarot cards, we follow a thief, or ‘The Fool’, as he attempts to transcend from an animalistic primitive being, into an enlightened figure. The film is a metaphor for an endless list of things, but at its core The Holy Mountain is a visual metaphor for taking the impurity within, and turning it into something valuable. To shatter realities that limit you, and seek a truer, more enlightened existence. Key flaws of the human condition are deconstructed on screen; the human ego, the need to want, to lust, to fight - all corruptions of the soul. There is no limit to the amount of symbolic imagery this film utilises; lifting from astrology, Zen teachings and tarot cards, this is pure imagistic cinema; designed to almost overwhelm the narrative. A very postmodernist approach to filmmaking.

This film oozes visual and aesthetic flair; and Jodorowsky is not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve. There are visual references to the works of Jean Cocteau, Antonio Gaudí, and even Michelangelo. There is a scene early on in the film that is a direct reference to Michelangelo's La Pieta as the thief begins to reject his stature as a Christ figure. Later, Jodorowsky’s visual aesthetic shifts as the 9 disciples destroy their images and accept the spiritual journey they are about to embark on. As they destroy their money and their past selves, Jodorowsky discards his lush, aesthetic style of filmmaking; and adopts a more grounded, almost documentarian or cinéma vérité approach to the final stretch of the film.

The majority of the actors on screen were not actors; just people who felt a strong connection to the characters they played - people who were seeking out a spiritual experience. The 9 disciples ascending the mountain were on hallucinogens in real life. Living together in a house for 2 months, like Captain Beefheart making Trout Mask Replica, these 'actors' were experiencing a real mystical journey. Not only is this a film about spiritual enlightenment, this film IS spiritual enlightenment. Jodorowsky is their Zen master, leading their destruction of earthly illusions to reach a true reality. On the journey to the mountain, Jodorowsky and the film crew visited real life spiritual places across Mexico. Incredibly, the shamans and healers that the disciples encounter on screen are real. Completely unplanned scenarios.

Not only did Jodorowsky break conventional rules of filmmaking with The Holy Mountain; he subverted the well established ‘hero's journey’ narrative form. Popularised by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero's journey refers to the hero who sets out on an adventure, is victorious in some form of challenge, and comes home changed or transformed for the better. In The Holy Mountain, our heroes are in search of enlightenment, to ascend, to find true reality. Jodorowsky gives them this true reality; this holy mountain is not real, this is a film, ”zoom back camera”.

An incredible piece of cinema, that I will always be endlessly fascinated to revisit.

Check out my recent Fando Y Lis and El Topo reviews here.

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