After making an indelible mark on pop culture with such late ’60s-early ’70s provocations as Fando and Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky seemed to disappear. While other directors (Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch) followed his lead and started experimenting with trippy dream narratives, Jodorowsky spent several years trying to get an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune made without luck. His three subsequent films — Tusk, The Voice Thief and the underrated Santa Sangre — barely left a trace. Although he kept busy writing books, sketching comics and mounting stage plays, Jodorowsky’s career as a filmmaker seemed to be over.
And now, at the sprightly age of 85, Jodorowsky is back with one of his most lucid, hopeful and personal films to date. The Dance of Reality, which recounts his childhood and was shot on the same nondescript street in Tocopilla, Chile, where he grew up, retains many of the themes of his early work — sex, religion, politics, identity, circus performers, the disfigured and disenfranchised. But this time, the director is addressing the audience directly, often appearing onscreen to speak to us, and what was see is a happy, enthralled man who has overcome great tragedies in his life but has always found salvation in his art. That, more than anything else, is his religion.
Jodorowsky cast his older son Brontis to play his brutish father, a die-hard Stalinist (right down to the mustache he sports) who changes his name to hide his Jewish background and tries to make a man out of his young son (Jeremias Herskkovits) by forcing him to cut his long blond hair and not allowing the dentist to administer any anesthesia during a procedure. His mother (Pamela Flores), who was an aspiring opera singer in real life, recites all her dialogue in a beautiful soprano, an ingenious conceit that, like the rest of this somewhat overlong movie, grows a little tiresome but never enough to disengage you from the film.
A former clown, mime and puppeteer who currently practices of a brand of mystic spirituality he created known as “psycho magic,” Jodorowsky has many more wells to draw from than the average filmmaker. He brings them all to bear in this hallucinatory yet grounded picture, which careens from a scene in which his father fights a group of amputees in the street to a moment in which his mother squats over the boy and urinates on him (shades of The Paperboy). Despite the repeated psychological trauma he suffers, though, the boy proves resilient and strong, even after he’s mocked by his friends for being circumcised, something he doesn’t understand.
But whenever the kid is on the verge of losing it, the director appears on screen, consoling him — and us — with the promise of salvation and peace. “I soar away from the past [and] land in the body present,” he says at one point. The Dance of Reality, which deserves a place along Amarcord as a fantastical take on coming of age, is the work of a wise and experienced old soul with the heart and curiosity of a young man.