For those of you who are not Spanish speaking zoologists or gardeners, the title translates “the mole.”
This is referenced at the beginning of the film, “The mole digs tunnels under the earth, looking for the sun. Sometimes, he gets to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded.” What does that mean? In the context of the film, I would have to say that it means nothing. I think I know what Jodorowsky is getting at. We all search for answers. It is our nature. But we are not equipped to get those answers.
But beyond that? I don’t know.
The Plot of El Topo
If you’ve been around here for any time, you know I don’t believe in spoilers. And science backs me up. But I didn’t need science to know this. Maybe because I have been a writer for a very long time, I naturally did something that others don’t: I would compete with the author — trying to figure out the ending as quickly as possible. But if I already know the story, all my attention is on the story and not where it is headed.
Still, since I know there are many silly people who think that the plot must be a mystery for them to enjoy a film, I use this little widget that allows me to hide my plot summaries from those who wish not to know the plot. In most cases, my summaries are very detailed. This is because I see this site to be more about advocacy than anything else. Others who write about these films can depend upon the plot summaries here (as opposed to Wikipedia or almost any review I ever read).
El Topo is divided into two very distinct sections.
The title character is a badass cowboy who rides the desert with his naked 7-year-old son. He abandons the boy with monks to go off with Mara, a woman he saves from sexual slavery. She is a Lady Macbeth kind of character who tells him that she can only love him if he kills the four great gun masters. It is clear, that just like Macbeth himself, he isn’t too keen on the whole project. But he reluctantly agrees.
It’s all kind of strange from there. He meets them, they discuss philosophy, and then he kills them, mostly through trickery. A strangely androgynous guide shows up in the middle of all this. When El Topo kills the last gun master, Mara shoots El Topo and runs off with the guide.
That’s the first two-thirds of the film.
At the very end of the first part of the film, a group of dwarfs and deformed people show up and carry El Topo’s body away. The second part starts perhaps 20 years later. El Topo is in a cave where he has apparently been in a coma with the deformed people who live there treating him as a god. He wakes up and tells them he is not a god. They are all trapped underground because of the limits of their deformities. So he decides to dig a tunnel for them.
He takes a dwarf woman with him and goes to the local town to get money to get tunneling supplies. El Topo and the woman fall in love as they work together. Soon a monk comes to town who turns out to be El Topo’s abandoned son.
The son wants to kill his father but allows his father to first finish the tunnel. When it is done, the son finds he cannot kill his father. The people trapped underground escape and go into the town where they are shot down by all the townspeople. El Topo turns back into the badass he was at the beginning of the film. He kills everyone in town. He then self-immolates himself, much like Thích Quảng Đức.
The woman gives birth to his child and then she and the baby ride off with El Topo’s elder son who has now effectively become El Topo.
The first part of the film is visually idiosyncratic. It has a style of cutting that is very much like Sergio Leone. Continuity is not of great concern. In fact, much of the discontinuity is delightful. So the film goes from philosophy to action and back, over and over again. It is very much like what The Wachowskis would make if they made a western. But even though the philosophizing is pseudo-eastern, the iconography is very much Christian with a distinct Old Testament emphasis.
The second part of the film is far more interesting. For one thing, El Topo acts as a kind of anti-Jesus. He builds a tunnel for those trapped underground. But their freedom leads directly to their deaths. And it isn’t because they are deformed. The film makes clear that they are deformed because they have been ostracized. The woman tells El Topo that they are all deformed because of all the incest that has gone on in the cave.
Much of the film is about rebirth. The outcasts are killed so El Topo, acting as God, slaughters everyone to give his son, girlfriend, and child a chance going forward. Of course, it could be that seven years later they will be at exactly the place where the film started. But none of this really matters because I don’t think that Jodorowsky is really working in any concrete way.
You can think of it as a road picture. It works like that.
Or you can think of it as a fetish film. There is lots to that!
But mostly, it is an internally consistent journey: a man searches for meaning and then dies without answers. As we all do.
Is El Topo Really Psychotronic?
It’s listed under psychotronic films here, so I guess I must think so. Just the same, most people think of it as an art film. I think it is both. A lot of psychotronic films are also art films. Certainly, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is an art film. Sure, it’s very low-budget. And much of it is mundane. But certainly, George Barry knew he wasn’t making a commercial film.
Similarly, Alejandro Jodorowsky knew he wasn’t making a film that parents were going to take their children to. Good God, it starts with a 7-year-old boy running around the desert naked. And I mean naked. Okay! He wears a hat! They’re in the desert. It’s hot.
And what about the incest? Not exactly something to be shown along with Escape to Witch Mountain.
But let me put the question back on you. You are here visiting Psychotronic Review. You must be interested in the weird and wonderful in film. Watch this short trailer and bear in mind that this is kind of sanitized. And it tries to trick you into thinking it is a spaghetti western (not that they aren’t psychotronic films too), but it’s not. It’s more a flying spaghetti monster western.
Do you want to see it?
What “Critics” Say
At the time of its release, El Topo was rather well reviewed. I could just dismiss this to the blind chipmunk occasionally finding a nut or the unset clock on your microwave being correct for exactly two minutes per day. But I don’t think that was what was going on.
I think critics liked it because they saw it as an art film, figured the bizarre plot and varied symbolism must mean something, and didn’t want to look stupid in a few years when everyone else proclaimed it a masterpiece. (Given they do this all the time, I don’t know why they would care. But I don’t think “critics” do a lot of thinking.)
Over time, no one seemed to find much meaning in the film — at least not any Great Meaning. And so the film went down in the opinions of many critics. It has seen something of a resurgence, however — especially since it was released on DVD in 2007. But now, of course, it can be classified. It is an “acid western.” I’ll let you figure out what that means.
Shockingly, El Top has a 78 percent “fresh” rating from “critics” on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not surprising, however, that the audience rating is higher at 84 percent.
There are still a lot of stupid things said about the film. Ben Walters at Time Out, in a mostly positive review, wrote that when it first made its way to London, “El Topo had already established a formidable reputation as the seminal midnight movie, and perhaps even a metaphysical masterpiece. I’m not sure about that, but, released in a digitally restored edition, it remains an aesthetically intoxicating trip.” He’s not sure about that? Then what is he writing about the film for? I think he’s really saying that he doesn’t think it is a masterpiece but is afraid to come right out and say it. Typical “critic.”
He also wrote, “Taking its cue from spaghetti westerns, it stars the director as an avenger in black…” Really?! I’ve seen a lot of spaghetti westerns and I don’t recall one that starred the director. I’m sure there are some — there are so many spaghetti westerns. But it certainly isn’t generally true. Nor is the hero being in black a cliche of the genre. And this is from a positive review because it looks good and is filled with a bunch of stuff Walters can’t take the time to figure out.
But his outlook on the film is hardly unique. It seems pretty typical of good reviews. And we should be grateful because at least these reviews make the film sound fun, which it is.
Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times seems mostly to hate El Topo because it isn’t Jodorowsky’s next film, The Holy Mountain. He calls it a “dreary, protracted exercise in sadomasochism.” But then goes on to describe the movie in what sounds like a positive tone.
Fundamentally, Thomas’ problem with the film is the number one problem that “critics” have with films: it isn’t what the “critic” wanted it to be. It’s idiotic. It’s like an art critic complaining that Picasso’s The Old Guitarist (1903) sucks because he likes The Actor (1904) more.
There is also a sad anti-hippie subtext to the review. He wrote, “Take off his hat and El Topo could have blended in at a Robert Altman house party of the era.” Really? Is that a comment on the costume design of the film? I don’t think so, given the review makes no other mention of costume. It’s just a way to jab at the filmmaker who he says “is no Bunuel — nor a Leone, for that matter.” Really?! I’d love to dive into that topic, especially given how much Thomas gushes about The Holy Mountain. (I’m not putting down The Holy Mountain at all — it is another great film.)
It’s just more pseudo-intellectualism from a film “critic” who has read which directors he should consider great and which he shouldn’t.
What to Watch For
Frankly, with a film like El Topo you should just sit back and enjoy. It’s a lot like going to the circus — but one that’s actually enjoyable. It bounces from scene to scene — at times like you are watching a bunch of short films strung together. But it flows — as long as you don’t fight it.
Normally, I would provide “lowbrow goodies” and “highbrow goodies.” In terms of El Topo, I think they are the same — except that the lowbrow goodies have an exclemation mark after them.
- Righteous violence
- Unconventional sex
- Flaming father
- Naked 7-year-old gunfighter
- Philosophical gunfights
Information about the movie itself:
- Release date: 18 December 1970
- Length:124 minutes
- MPAA Rating: NR (generally an “R” based on ratings in other countries)
- Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
- Film: 35 mm (spherical)
Since the credits are in Spanish, it’s a little hard to say exactly what is what. The biggest problem is that Jodorowsky claims to have designed the look of the film and then two other guys implemented that design. Four associate producers are listed at the end of the film. One of them is Roberto Viskin. He is listed at the beginning of the film as executive producer and was also production manager. On lower budget films, the producer is very often the production manager. I assume the associate producers were people who brought in money, thus the double producer credit for Viskin. Thus, I think this film had one creative producer.
- Production Company: Producciones Panicas
- Distribution Company: ABKCO FILMS
- Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
- Producer: Roberto Viskin
- Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky
- Cinematographer: Rafael Corkidi
- Camera Operators: Miguel Garzón and Antonio Ruiz
- Editor: Federico Landeros
- Scene Designer: Alejandro Jodorowsky
- Scene Implementors: José Durán and José Luis Garduño
- Composer: Alejandro Jodorowsky
- Arranger: Nacho Mendez
- Actors: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jacqueline Luis, Mara Lorenzio, Paula Romo, Robert John, Brontis Jodorowsky, and many others.