El Topo (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lust is not good.

This is an experimental film that has received a large and loyal following. Although considered highly controversial at the time it is pretty tame by today’s standards. The story deals with a mysterious gunman named El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky) who comes out of nowhere to avenge a town that has been massacred. Once finished with this he takes the perpetrator’s women and goes off into the desert. Here he must prove himself against four different masters whom all appear to be invincible. Yet it is the women and his lustful desires that turn him into a victim. Defeated and demoralized he turns to spirituality and ends up fighting to save some deformed people from a town that has barricaded them into an underground cavern.
The blood, violence, and sexuality are no big deal. The special effects are weak and the editing is choppy. In many ways it comes off looking like an amateurish artifact from a bygone era. Yet content wise it is fascinating and Director Jodorowsky shows a unique and definite talent. It bites off more than it can chew especially with its low budget, but it is far from a failure as certain scenes are guaranteed to leave a strong impression.
It has a reputation of being convoluted, but I found it to be quite lyrical. Once one adjusts to its mesmerizing use of symbolism it becomes almost riveting. The heavy allegorical nature is both intriguing and provocative and the unique vision helps raise it well above the fray.

If nothing else it will keep you engaged. It is fun and interesting to see one man go through such different stages and it effectively gives you a complete understanding of him by showing all the different sides to his personality. Besides having a lot of religious correlations and an overall negative view of women there is also, surprisingly, a lot of comedy and lightheartedness.

It does fail to leave an overall strong impact and the tone is cold and alienating with characters that are unpleasant. I also felt it gets too bogged down with its use of symbolism and need to build everything up to epic proportions is overdone. Still for those that like movies that are weird and different they won’t be disappointed. The castration of a pompous colonel is amazing. The showdowns with the masters are memorable and the game of Russian roulette amongst a group of churchgoers isn’t bad either.

The film promotes a rather curious statement made by its director and used as a tagline on most of its posters and box covers. It states “If you are great ‘El Topo’ is a great picture. If you are limited than ‘El Topo’ is limited.” This statement has always struck me as funny because it allows no room for anyone to criticize the film otherwise they will be labeled as ‘limited’. In any case I give this film 7 out of 10 points, which I guess only makes me 30 percent limited.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1970

Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes

Rated: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Studio: Douglas Films

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

6 responses to “El Topo (1970)

  1. I’ve wondered about tackling this one. Films like this I usually react to pretty strongly, for or against. If against, then I really get pissed that I’ve wasted my time.

  2. “Pretty tame by today’s standards” ? That is a real, live, living crow that actually gets blown up with honest-and-for-true explosives. And, the rape scene is authentic — Jodorowsky ACTUALLY raped actress Mara Lorenzio on camera. She had no idea it was going to happen. I’d say that an actual as-it-happens, full-penetration sexual assault still, in this day and age, isn’t considered “pretty tame” in the world of cinema.

    • Point Counterpoint

      Jodorowsky has claimed elsewhere that the “sexual assault” took place with Mara’s “full consent”…in this area, as well, the director has probably deliberately created ambiguity.

  3. Pingback: The Holy Mountain (1973) | Scopophilia

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