Discussing surrealist cinema on “Is That A Movie?” seems like an obvious cop out. Of course films with jarringly strange visuals and unconventionally arranged story structures are going to be weird and outside of what Hollywood produces for mainstream movie going audiences. Projects by auteurs like Salvador Dali and David Lynch have helped define this style of filmmaking as a portrayal of the ridiculous as rational, and have redefined ‘reality’. Over the years, surrealism has permeated through European art film movements, as evidenced in such films as Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). With almost all of these films, there’s a degree of grounded reality that’s established so the surrealist elements that are introduced can properly contrast with what is originally set up as “real”, and then make the viewer question their own definition of real. Then you have Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who takes these notions of surrealism and cranks the knob up to 11 in his psychedelic-soaked masterpiece The Holy Mountain (1973).
I really do mean psychedelic-soaked. Not only was the film financed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and produced by The Beatles’ manager Allen Klein, but Jodorowsky took LSD during production and fed his actors “magic mushrooms” before shooting certain scenes. It’s quite obvious from the opening alone how this has influenced the film’s look and narrative (or lack thereof). The movie starts you off with several quick shots of two women dressed as Marilyn Monroe in a black and white tiled room with Jodorowsky dressed up as a variation on Ingmar Bergman’s death character from The Seventh Seal (1957). Then the opening credits roll as Jodorowsky, who we later find out is known as The Alchemist, performs an elaborate ritual before undressing and shaving the two women. As the movie goes on, we follow a thief that looks like Jesus Christ as he eventually meets The Alchemist and joins him along with some others as they journey to the top of the holy mountain to seek enlightenment. Immediately one might shout the proverbial “what the fuck?” and dismiss The Holy Mountain (1973) as pretentious art house crap or the random byproduct of the drug culture of the time. It definitely is a movie that you have to get used to over time. You have to accept the fact that, as you watch the film, it doesn’t want you to focus on the narrative and instead forces you to be absorbed into the style and artistry of the visuals and their meaning. Ultimately, the viewer is given a more cerebral experience.
Jodorowsky masterfully accomplishes this goal in my opinion. There is very little use in predicting what kinds of visuals you’re going to be given in the next shot and there’s no real kind of narrative or story to get invested in. Sure there’s a plot and things going on, but when you’re constantly trying to process new information given to you in the form of beautifully psychedelic and hilariously strange visuals and discontinuous editing, you’re just not going to be able to really understand what’s going on. You can’t just be like, “oh yeah then it’s going to be the scene where all these prostitutes walk out of a church and they’re all wearing the same see through clothing and have the same hair and then a man walks up to one of the prostitutes and takes out his fake eye and gives it to her” after just seeing a scene of a man who looks like Jesus destroying mannequins that look like him in a potato storage room and pretend like you knew that was going to happen because you read Save the Cat at some point or something.
Ultimately one’s enjoyment, or willingness to sit through the entirety of the film, is definitely based on how willing you are to interpret the imagery presented to you throughout. The movie is heavily steeped in Christian themes and Christian imagery, so the jarring psychedelic nature of everything that’s going on really does give you the kind of experience that Jadarowsky intended. Religion isn’t inherently cerebral, which The Holy Mountain very much goes out of its way to display with scenes in the first act of the pope sleeping with a crucified Jesus idol and a reenactment of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs using lizards and toads. Not only this, but there’s plenty of graphic sexual content to boot. If you’re open-minded and patient with this movie then I promise that it’s worth the watch. The film’s ending is very iconic and for good reason: it has strong staying power in one’s head. It leaves you with plenty to think about, but it weirdly enough satisfies in how perfect an ending it is for a movie like this.