We’ll confess to just the tiniest amount of trepidation as we hovered on the threshold of the theater screening Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Dance of Reality” at the Göteborg International Film Festival. It had been 23 years since Jodorowsky last released a film, the compromised, and subsequently disowned Peter O’Toole-starrer “The Rainbow Thief,” and about 23 hours since we’d fallen for Jodo all over again during our viewing of the joyously entertaining “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (review here). What to expect from this ringmaster of the bizarre, now in his mid-eighties? How might the intervening decades of knockbacks and disappointments have rusted or warped the skills of an already pretty warped filmmaker? We needn’t have worried. While the meagre production budget of “The Dance of Reality” does make itself felt in the inescapably tacky production values, and while the photography overall lacks the richness and filmic qualities of, well, film (it’s shot digitally, using rather telenovela-style lighting), the abundance of ideas, and the surreal, mischievous wit with which they’re delivered more than amply compensate. Couple all this with a more than usually coherent narrative (we’re speaking relatively here; there are about a million digressions too) and you get a movie that, if not quite classic Jodorowsky, still pops and fizzes with the same wrong-footing verve that is so specifically his.
Based on memories of Jodorowsky’s childhood in Tocopilla, in northern Chile, the film is ostensibly the story of young Alejandro himself, though for a good portion of the second half it abandons him to follow Jaime, Alejandro’s mercurial, authoritarian father, played by Jodo’s son Brontis (just one of the many Jodorowskys who endearingly pop up in the end credits). Brontis is actually very good in the role, seemingly well attuned to the almost pantomime style of hyper-non-naturalistic acting his father desires, and un-self-consciously comfortable with it. Little Alejandro’s mother Sara (Pamela Flores), a bountifully bosomed lady who sings all her dialogue opera-style, believes her son is the reincarnation of her father who died in an explosion while lighting a lamp on top of a vat of alcohol, until Jaime forces the child—whom he constantly berates for his softness and perceived possible homosexuality—to have his golden curls shorn off. This is all set against the backdrop of Chilean political agitation and social inequality in which the rigid Jaime, who runs a shop with his wife, might seem to belong to the petty bourgeoisie, but is in fact a card-carrying member of Communist party, along with a motley collection of idealogues, transvestites and local prostitutes. Oh, and there’s a belligerent army of amputees, a midget who uses increasingly hilarious advertising gimmicks to encourage shoppers into the store, an unfortunate incident that kills every fish in the sea and a un-anesthetized dentist visit, and that’s all in about the first fifteen minutes.
The director himself appears at irregular intervals, usually cradling his younger version and whispering philosophical comforts into his ear as his father visits some new humiliation upon him. But this is not just an oddball misery memoir either. In fact it feels closer, overall, to an effort to rehabilitate his father in his own eyes, as Jodo has him survive the plague, fall madly back in love with his wife, and eventually embark on a perilous, quixotic mission to assassinate the dictatorial General Ibanez. All of this malarkey should really wear thin over the film’s generous two-hour-plus running time, but amazingly, it really doesn’t, as the film rarely dawdles, propelled onward by its own questing, corkscrew logic that somehow feels moment-to-moment sensible until you glance over your shoulder and realize that sense disappeared over the horizon a long while ago.
What really keeps it together are the throughlines of Jodorowsky’s themes and recurrent motifs, many of them recognizable to fans from his other work, from the overarching concepts of mysticism, redemption, messianic self-sacrifice right down to details like Jaime’s late-stage paralysis of his hands, which mimics the lack of control the protagonist of “Santa Sangre” has over his, or the constant reappearance of the deformed and the afflicted. And what powers our continual engagement is the gonzo absurdity that Jodorowsky injects into nearly every frame—as pretentious or portentous as the Jodo-as-an-old-man-counseling-his-childhood-self thing could be, any self-seriousness is immediately undercut by a sight gag, as when Jaime, incensed by a news report, pisses on the radio till it sparks, or some random allusion, like how Ibanez’s beloved horse is named Bucephalus, after Alexander the Great’s famous steed.
Jodorowsky throws everything and several kitchen sinks into the film, yet it all has its place, and the overall effect is not of the headachey mess it would be in anyone else’s hands, but of a kind of joyous, absurdist melange of highbrow concepts, personal memoir and potty humor. And that’s maybe the most winning part of the whole enterprise: as much as the sometimes painful memories and the surprisingly emotive depths he plumbs might threaten to turn into a kind of voyage into the dark night of Jodorowsky’s soul, his quicksilver mind and the trickster glint in his eye are equally powerful characteristics. So as flawed as it is throughout, particularly in visual quality, and though it starts to lag toward the end (the mother’s dialogue especially causes impatience later on as singing a phrase takes about five times longer than saying it, and maybe ten times longer than reading a subtitle), we found ourselves gladly feasting, occasionally to laugh-out-loud effect, at the groaning banquet table of “The Dance of Reality,” right up until the happy/sad last shot that brought home, to our surprise, just how invested we’d become. Don’t leave it so long the next time, Mr. Jodorowsky, and welcome back. [B-]