“The Holy Mountain” (1973)

the-holy-mountain-1973 poster Japanese styleThe movie that became a cult classic among certain people and was called a blasphemous shocker by others. If you never saw any of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, it is likely that you never experienced something like this before.

The only director whose style comes close is the great Luis Buñuel, especially in his late movies, like “The Phantom of Liberty.” Jodorowsky tries to blend mysticism, esotericism, influences of shamanism and Buddhism together with cinema. Buñuel was famous for his connection with surrealism and his movies are full of surrealistic ideas. Both directors came from predominantly Catholic countries (Buñuel from Spain, Jodorowsky from Chile) and the criticism of this religion haunts their movies.

But even with these similarities in mind, Jodorowsky has an exceptional style which is impossible to mistake for anyone else’s.

“The Holy Mountain” has a plot, but this plot consists of so many bizarre episodes that many viewers may feel lost. But just watch it if you dare, and I promise you, there is a plot.

The first shot presents two blonde women and Jodorowsky himself (playing The Alchemist – a wise man, or a deceiver, depending on your interpretation). In a strange ceremonial manner  he washes off the women’s make-up, strips them naked, shaves their heads, and finally inclines his head, covering the women’s bald heads with the brim of his black hat. At this point we do not know what is going on. The shot is presented in an almost voyeuristic way, as if we were witnessing some sort of forbidden ritual. This feeling of being a voyeuristic spectator will disappear as the movie progresses, because we follow the protagonist who “permits us” to join the events.

The Holy Mountain_Alejandro Jodorowsky_hat_two womenThis protagonist is called The Thief in the movie, but he resembles a Jesus Christ more than anyone else. We meet him in the next scene after the opening one. The scenes do not appear to be logically connected. In the times when movie editing was still pretty traditional, “The Holy Mountain” is characterized by frequent cuts which the viewers are unprepared for. The Thief lies on the ground, unconscious, covered in dirt and his own urine. The flies cover his face like excrement. Naked children come and laugh at him. He is befriended by a footless, handless dwarf.* They go into the city and then…

(* Grotesque frequently welcomes people who would work as living exhibits in freak shows of the past. Yet this does not mean that a disabled or deformed character automatically makes a work of art grotesque. I feel this differentiation deserves the separate post in the future.)

The episodes that follow could be of picaresque nature if not for their extremity. Some are nauseating. Some violent. Many erotic. The movie breaks every taboo possible. We see full nudity, both male and female. Deviations. Violence. Castration. Animal cruelty. Mockery of religion. And lastly, outlandish grossness.

But also beauty. Composition. Order. Grandeur. Baroque style. The cinematography here is phenomenal.

The Holy Mountain - Great Toad and Chameleon Circus - chameleon AztecsThe question remains: can the movie which seems to aim for making its viewers uncomfortable or even enraged still be a work of art? For me, yes. And yes, there are some scenes that I disagree with. Still I believe in the thought-provoking art. If it wants to state something, shocking is justified.

What does this movie want to state? That’s another problem with approaching “The Holy Mountain” today. It is deemed as a cult hippie movie and was compared to the visions after taking hallucinogenic drugs. The film was produced by Beatles manager Allen Klein, because both John Lennon and George Harrison appreciated Jodorowsky’s previous film “El Topo”. (you can find more information about that here).

A movie with such exceptional background, such following, and the director who, as I already mentioned, does not hide his fascination with occultism and spirituality, can quickly be regarded as rich in imagery but poor in thought. But not “The Holy Mountain.”

Excellent website 366 Weird Movies (whole text here) has a great analysis of the movie and I will quote a fragment:

If you tore out pages from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, The Golden Bough, and a dozen other esoteric works from the Kabbalah to Gurdijeff—throwing in a couple of sleazy pulp novels for good measure—and put them together in a giant cauldron, stirred them up and pulled out sheaves at random and asked a troupe of performance artists, carnival freaks, and hippies tripping on peyote to act them out, you might come up with a narrative something like The Holy Mountain.

Another fragment about shock value in the movie: “The director goes all-out grotesque here: the visions include animal sex, hermaphrodism, castration, ejaculation, and lactation.”

Exactly, all-out grotesque is why I’m writing about this movie.

The Holy Mountain - face covered with tarantulas
This is one of the mildest of the gross and macabre scenes.

The images contrast with each other in a seemingly mad way, yet the viewers can try to grasp the meaning behind them. And this quest for meaning will not be in vain.

The movie is full of symbols and they are not esoteric props to make the setting more attractive. In fact, I feel that without basic knowledge about The New Testament and ancient Roman gods your movie experience will be incomplete. I am familiar with Catholic imagery but had to brush up the facts about Roman mythology (Uranus? Saturn?). But when it comes to Buddhism or the history of South America, I am no expert. I could probably notice even more metaphors, had I known more about these subjects.

That being said, I think that no genre could describe this movie properly. Grotesque? Surrealism? Fantasy? Religious movie (paradoxically)? Horror? Parable? Postmodern art?

The Holy Mountain - Fon, Venus - faces on line shaftWhatever you call it, it is not the movie for everyone, as you probably have guessed already. Those who decide to watch it, will experience powerful images that are impossible to forget. And you don’t have to join (or even agree with) The Alchemist’s cult to enjoy the world that Jodorowsky creates. He at the same time embraces the hippie ideology and deliberately mocks it. He introduces both anti-religious and pro-religious messages.

There is ugliness in a primitive sculpture of crucified Christ and beauty in the eyes of the prostitute who believes in her personal savior. This modern Mary Magdalene is accompanied by a chimpanzee everywhere she walks. Beauty and the beast.

The world seems crazy to Jodorowsky and I think that he deliberately shocks to make us notice it. Some things he presents have already happened, for example the fetishization of violence and guns or extreme tourism (by that I mean tourism based on exploitation of the natives’ suffering).

Whether Jodorowsky warns us, shows us new ways or simply plays with ideas in a postmodern manner, I am sure that “The Holy Mountain” will continue to baffle next generations.

It is exceptional, a work of a highly talented individual who got a big budget to make his vision come true. I think all movie visionaries envy him this opportunity.

NEWS FLASH: Check out Alejandro Jodorowsky’s kickstarter page: http://kck.st/1yG9EWs You can help to make his new movie “Endless Poetry”! And how often can you help the legend? The kickstarter project ends on 22 March 2015.

4 thoughts on ““The Holy Mountain” (1973)

  1. I haven’t seen this one but it’s bizarreness might be right up my alley. The screen capture you posted with the spiders definitely reminds me of Un Chien Andalou with the ants.

    1. Please do. :) I’m sure you will see many more similarities to “Un Chien Andalou”. But, as I said, I link it more to the later Buñuel ‘s films which were very satirical in tone.

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