The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain ★★★★½

The Holy Mountain (1973), a film very much by Alejandro Jodorowsky, is a provocative blend of surreal imagery and dreamlike narratives. The plot, if you can describe it as such, doesn’t really begin to develop until the latter half of the film. The first part treads incredibly slowly, but once the story moves into place, it moves quickly and purposefully. The story follows one man’s journey from destitution and thievery to enlightenment, amidst a very cruel world. I’ve watched Jodorowsky movies before, so the ubiquitous sex and gore didn’t surprise me, though it was still as affecting as the first time I saw it. Like Dali and Bunuel in Un Chien Andalou (1929), Jodorowsky presents his world as ‘reality’ with no need of further explanation.

In fact, Jodorowsky directed his cinematographer Rafael Cordiki, who worked alongside him on many of his earlier projects, to be as clinical and objective as possible. In a recent interview, he says:

“When there is an accident, the news camera films it from the point of view that it can, and it’s always good because the accident is terrible! I say, let’s construct an accident and shoot it from any side that’s good. The important thing is not the camera.”

The Thief, the unnamed protagonist of the film, is meant to be reminiscent of Jesus. The first half of the movie paints him as animalistic and childlike, uncivilized even in Jodorowsky’s warped idea of civilization. The religious iconography continues throughout, with the Jesus-lookalike Thief constantly juxtaposed against imagery of crosses and crucifixions.

The Thief eventually meets a master, an alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) who quite literally turns his shit to gold. The alchemist introduces him to seven of the most powerful humans on earth. They are all incredibly rich, making their profits from war, violence, brutality, and sex. They have everything of material value they could possibly want, and still the alchemist offers them something they can’t resist: the secret to immortality. In order to achieve immortality, however, they must gain wisdom, and to gain wisdom, they must lose their individual self and instead become part of the world. The seven, the Thief, and the Alchemist go on a quest to the top of a holy mountain to achieve immortality, completely often bizarre tasks along the way meant to strip them of their material greed and human self.

The viewer jumps from scene to scene, often with little to no logical transitions between the cuts. The sequence reads more like a series of images in a dream that runs together. There were times when I was watching this where I had to pause and ask myself whether the time shift was one that the film was explicitly portraying or whether it was one that I was projecting onto the scenes in front of me.

A lot of my time watching this film was spent in confusion, especially the first part. But the world Jodorwsky built within the first hour and a half of the movie is what sets the tone and allows the remaining half of the movie to move as fast as it does. As an audience, we do not identify with characters, nor are we given enough insight into a character’s psyche to empathize with them.

The end of the quest finds the Thief breaking away from the other seven and ‘graduating’ from the alchemist’s tutelage. The alchemist asks the Thief to take an axe and cut off his head, but at the last moment, when the blade is about to touch the alchemist’s skin, there is a flash and a lamb appears and is killed in place of the alchemist. This is from one of the most well-known religious stories, where Abraham is told to sacrifice his son by God. Abraham agrees, and so God sees the truth and piety of Abraham’s faith, and replaces Abraham’s son with a lamb.

The alchemist and the Thief separate, and we return to the other seven, who are about to reach their pinnacle of immortality. They sit around a large circular table, alongside the alchemist, who tells them that they have not reached immortality, but rather, reality. The alchemist, or as he is now, Jodorowsky, stares directly into the camera and orders it to zoom out, revealing tens of other camera crew.

The Holy Mountain is a practice in subverting the idea of illusion and reality. The world as we know it in the film is not the one we live in, but it is similar enough to confuse us and challenge our idea of what exists and what is our imagination. It finds the place in between the viewer perceives and what is actually real. At the very ending of the film, Jodorowsky tells both the audience and the cast that they must now ‘return to real life’, and everybody on-screen turns and walk away. The audience is then left with only an idea of real life, and no answers as to what it actually is and whether it not it exists. Although The Holy Mountain portrays twisted versions of both religion and capitalism, it is difficult for me to label it as ‘satire’ (it’s not a very funny film, perhaps freakishly eccentric), however, because of its seemingly objective viewpoint. Jodorowsky is not poking fun at anything he is showing the viewer. He is simply sharing what he sees as he sees it. The Holy Mountain is not even artistic perception, but rather a reflection of its creator's worldview. Cinema becomes personal perception, not at all worried about an audience or the medium's constraints.

Jodorowsky himself has already accepted the reality of death, although he has the ambition to live three hundred more years, “Accepting death is a massive problem for everybody,” he says. “I still fear death, the physical suffering, but spiritually not anymore. I already accepted it. I had a son who died. That’s where the fall of my ego started. That’s when I had the terrible encounter with reality.”

To heal after his son’s death, Jodorowsky turned to tarot, and created his own tarot-based therapy he calls ‘psychomagic.’ Today, he’s helped heal many other believers, whom he gives free consultations for every Wednesday in Paris.

“Psychomagic gives a solution in which you realize your desire in a metaphorical way. You make love with your father, you have a child with your father, but as in a dream. You do it. Without judging yourself. You want to kill somebody? Okay. You kill the person, but metaphorically.”


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