Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.   With 259 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  This week, he takes on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre.

There are some films that insert themselves so deep into our memory that you will never forget them, ever.  Like a recurring dream, Santa Sangre will shock you, disturb you, and disgust you. Yet it carries so much inexplicable emotional weight that it will pull at your heartstrings.  Nothing can prepare you for what you’ll see here.

The Players:

  • Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
  • Writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, Claudio Argento
  • Cast:  Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou

The Plot:

[Warning--Spoilers Ahead!!]

A young boy magician named Fenix grows up the son of a circus performing mother, Concha, who is controlling and susceptible to jealous rages.  Concha is especially enraged by the infidelity of the circus ringmaster, a man constantly enjoying the temptations of a circus’s Tattoo Lady.  Everything gets bizarre after a violent and bloody confrontation occurs.  Fenix’s life is never the same, and neither is the rest of the film.

The Good

  • A Bizarre and Unconventional Premise: Orphaned and mentally disturbed after slicing off of his mother’s arms, Fenix lands at an asylum as an adult, where he appears to be thought of as a savage, as if raised by wild animals and completely detached from civilized society. What the film never explains, in terms of the Freudian psychology, is the mother’s influence on Fenix.  At times we are left wondering whether she exists or remains alive only in his mind.  It goes with the film, whether a series of events actually occur in the film’s reality or not is up for debate, and whatever conclusion is reached the film is not significantly changed.
  • Jodorowsky’s Vision: If I described a film featuring arms being sliced, acid poured on genitals, tattooed ladies, suicides and gore as being beautiful, you probably wouldn’t believe it. But there so many moments that blend artful imagery and music with violence it’s impossible not to call this a beautiful film.  At once, there are moments reminiscent of Fellini, Bunuel and a little Lynch.
  • Daring Imagery: Warning: the film features images of animal violence. But it’s consistent with early surrealist works, ones that featured a variety of animal imagery (I’m reminded of a donkey being dragged along the floor with a piano in Bunuel’s Andalusian Dog), Santa Sangre portrays an elephant dying , buried in a funeral-type ritual, and shows its appendages and organs torn out and thrown into a celebrating crowd of mourners. In one scene, dogs are seen licking the blood of a recently deceased person, in another scene, snakes emerge underneath a coat being worn, and in yet another scene, a Christ-like image of Fenix in a barn is surrounded by chickens.  Such is the disturbing and nonsensical world that these characters inhabit.
  • A Love Story:  Few love stories come close to being as surreal as Santa Sangre.  As Fenix encounters potential romance in his life, he is faced with orders to kill each potential suitor – his mother’s influence still very much alive within his mind.  All the while, Fenix remains hopeful that he will someday be reunited with his childhood love.
  • Performance: Concha is played by Blanca Guerra, who I had previously only seen in 80′s Mexican films, sometimes playing alongside Mexican singing legend, Vicente Fernandez.  Her performance here evokes feelings of fear and intimidation as a controlling women apparently willing to kill any woman deemed unpure.  Every scene with her presence holds a distinct edge to it, and provides loads of great tension.
  • Jodorowsky Trivia: During the 1970′s, Jodorowsky came close to directing a film version of Dune, a project for which he intended to hire none other than Salvador Dali and Orson Welles, with Pink Floyd providing the score.  One could only imagine what that film could have been!

The Bad

  •  I cannot think of anything bad to say at this time other than providing a warning to anyone with a weak stomach.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

This is one the most masterful reviews I’ve read from you and it is especially fitting that it describes a film restores my faith in unique visions.  You call this “a collision between Freud and Fellini”, and you’re right on the money. You say that Santa Sangre is a throwback to the days when filmmakers had bold individual visions and were not timidly trying to duplicate the latest mass-market formulas”, when you describe the main character’s journey as between “the most impenetrable thickets of Freudian and Jungian symbology”, when you say that one scene “treads delicately between fiction and documentary”, I couldn’t agree with you more.  You also mentioned that Jodorowsky has written a series of fantasy comic books and I am now determined to get my hands on them.  Anything made by someone this daring and creative should be seen by those who want to see something refreshingly unique.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GREAT

Do you like Santa Sangre?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad or Great?

Next week’s review:  House of Games