When El Topo was released in 1970, the theatrical trailer boasted it was a film beyond criticism and review. I’m somewhat inclined to agree. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s magnum opus remains both spellbinding, and compelling to this day. I find it very difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t seen it. Stylistic, symbolic, deep, and thought provoking are some of the terms that immediately come to mind. The viewing experience is different for everyone, so I can only write about what I took away after viewing this one.
The short explanation to the subject matter is pretty straight forward, It’s a film about spiritual awakening and rebirth. That only scratches the surface, it’s only the “tip” of the iceberg, in not so many words. At the time of it’s release, the world was going through many changes, physically and spiritually. The optimism of the 1960’s had brought on an interest in eastern philosophies, spirituality, and enlightenment the world over. Much of these themes can easily be found within this film. We as a people are El Topo, a lone individual riding upon a horse, on a journey attempting to discover ourselves.
Applying these themes to a film, would be challenging for any filmmaker. It would be even more difficult to make a film of this nature, and not have it come across as over bearing and pretentious. This is where Jodowrosky’s genius as a filmmaker shines. He sets up these complex themes within the confines of a western, a genre which had dominated the screen in terms of popularity, for decades before. On a personal level, this is why I love this film as much as I do. It combines the stylistic imagery one might find in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, such as A Fistful Of Dollars or Once Upon A Time In The West. He then applied the psychological depth and feel of a Federico Fellini film, such as Satyricon or 8 1/2. Combining these 2 themes together would draw in any viewer, and keep them interested throughout the films duration.
If one were to thoroughly explain every bit of symbolism contained within this film, it would take a book or a graduate thesis. Not since Citizen Kane, has a filmmaker applied such a vast amount of depth to a motion picture. These themes would continue, and be further expanded upon in his 1973 film, The Holy Mountain.