El Topo (The Mole)

El Topo

Alejandro Jodorowsky's 'El Topo' is a film that has had an endearing spot in my heart for many years. Back in the 1980's it was a film mostly believed to be lost in the ravages of time (incredible considering it was only produced back in 1971), but on a trip to the US a good friend took me to her favourite cult movie video rental store in Philadelphia where she showed me the blank box for a movie called 'El Topo' - a film neither of us had seen. The allure of this particular tape was the mystery behind it, you see in order to rent this title you had to leave a rather sizeable deposit as this was alleged to be a very rare print of a pretty much unseen cult classic. Sadly we didn't have the ready cash they were looking for to rent the tape and in time 'El Topo' would fade from memory...until one day BBC2 TV announced that they would be screening this title and in a bizarre twist it was seemingly sourced from the very tape master that the video shop on the East Coast had on offer! Now we shoot ahead to today, video has long been superseded by the DVD format and at long last 'El Topo' is widely available on this format for all to enjoy. No need to leave a sizeable deposit to watch this holy grail of cult movies as Raro Video in Italy have unleashed it on DVD for all to see, but in revisiting this long thought lost gem does it stand up to it's applauded cult status?

'El Topo' (or 'The Mole' in case you're wondering) is very much a film of two parts, the first perhaps being the most accessible to a mainstream audience with the latter section turning things on its head in a bizarre but satisfying set piece scenario. But I'm jumping ahead here, so let's first look at the storyline...or what you see on face value (and not any underlying themes that so many anal critics would wax lyrically about).

The film opens with our lead (El Topo) and his naked seven-year-old son as they travel through the baking heat of the desert. After stopping to bury the son's first teddy bear and a picture of his mother (as a turning point into his approaching manhood), they head into a local village where they find a scene of bloody mayhem. You see, in true Spaghetti Western style an evil delusional man (The Colonel) and his gap toothed bandit crew have passed through town brutally slaughtering all and sundry (men, children, animals...) and El Topo (being the righteous gunslinger that he is) seeks out to gain revenge for the senseless killings. It's not long before he happens across three of the gormless bandits where he participates in a bizarre showdown shoot out by way of a deflating squeaking balloon (who needs ten paces at noon?) after discovering where the Colonel and the rest of his demented troops are residing. Meanwhile said bandits are indulging in some buggery with the captive monks at the local monastery where they have taken base but their fun is short lived as El Topo soon arrives and despatches them bloodily freeing the rejoicing locals (and gaining himself a new starry eyed female companion). Weighing up heading off with either his new beau or his youthful son, El Topo (understandably) abandons his son with the monks and head off into the sunset with his new nubile female companion. But as is always the case with new relationships, El Topo is goaded into feeling the need to prove himself as the ultimate gun man so decides to take up the task of going up against the legendary four masters of the gun. These masters are not only skillful but very unique with their own unusual nuances; there's the blind man impervious to bullets, the mother and son team (sans pet lion), the man who live solitary with his legion of rabbits (?!) and the old man with nothing but a small bullet proof fishing net! And yes, this is indeed where the film starts to slide away from the traditional trappings of the Spaghetti Western and into a more surreal insight into director Jodorowsky's very intangible vision.

Starting out very much in the style of say Sergio Leone, 'El Topo' kicks off in the vein of the classic violent western but after lulling the viewer into feeling that they know where the boundaries of such a film resides Jodorowsky grabs your perceptions and gives them a good shake - but is this the seminal cult classic that it's been labelled as? Well, it does come very close to being perfect but then again something's not quite right. Perhaps the only minor downfall in my opinion would be the fact this movie really does play like a film of two very differing parts (like two separate movies patched together, each the polar opposite in style and theme). But then again, both sections are very satisfying in their own way so this is really a minor complaint (well, me being finicky in honesty). The aforementioned first half of the film is a very successful take on the Spaghetti Western genre utilising the key elements of these movies themes but taking an of kilter twist on some set pieces. I've completely shied away from discussing the second half of the film as I believe that if you've never seen 'El Topo' before then you should walk into this with as little spoiler knowledge as possible. The turn in the films story will have maximum impact if you go into it blind. All I will say though is that it seems to be Jodorowsky's own personal tribute to Todd Browning's stunning classic 'Freaks' and a very unsettling but satisfying closing section to the movie it is as well.

But it is the sheer visual insanity that Jodorowsky delivers in his movies that perhaps has put off some mainstream cult movie fans or those new to his work. Critics for years have argued the pros and cons of Jodorowsky's work and have delighted in exerting their own high brow thesis on the underlying themes of his films. Me, I've never had the time or inclination to blow my readings of someone's vision out my arse - a movie's a movie and yes Jodorowsky has saturated his work with all sorts of stuff to tease your brain juices but it's not for me or any other so called critic to tell you what to read into a film, that's for you to form your own opinion yourself?

'El Topo' has never looked better than it's presentation here from Raro Video and this release is just what fans of the movie have been waiting for. Nice colourful clean image with clear Spanish audio and optional subtitles in both English and Italian. Considering my opening comments on the relative obscurity of this film back in the 1980's it's simply fantastic to see this emerge now on DVD and thankfully Raro Video have done the film proud. Ideally it would have been the perfect package if they had included a documentary on the films fascinating history but what you do get is very much satisfying. There's a selection of text pages (offered in both Italian and English) covering Jodorowsky's life, movies and critical reaction but best of all is the filmed interview with Jodorowsky specialist Massimo Monteleone gives a valuable insight not only into 'El Topo' but Jodorowsky himself. Also included is a nice 12 page booklet covering similar ground to the disc text pages (nicely put together though).

Raro Video should be applauded for this very welcome release, they could easily have just unleashed 'El Topo' onto the Italian market with no options for the English viewer but Jodorowsky's fans can be very grateful that they chose to open this release up to the English speaking market. 'El Topo' is a surreal cult classic, perhaps (outside of Sante Sangre) is Jodorowsky's most accessible work and hence the ideal starting point for those new to his work. Raro Video's release is exemplary and therefore the best way to either rediscover or enter the bizarre world of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Check it out!

Review by Alan Simpson

Released by Raro Video
Region 2 - PAL
Rated - 18
Ratio - 1.33:1
Audio - Spanish 2.0 Stereo surround
Subtitles - Optional English or Italian
Extras :
Interview, Biography, Filmography, Film notes