Santa sangre (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)

When I finished this movie last night and went to sleep, I was perturbed, confused and damn near disgusted with “Santa sangre” and its unsettling imagery that appears to be weird for the sake of being weird, featuring some stuff that shocked and appalled me like few films ever have, and not in the way that would grab me and challenge me to accept the previously disturbing as something much more thought-out.  I was supremely disappointed and pretty much sickened by what I saw.

After eight hours of sleep, it’s # 74 on my list of 100 Favorite Films. 

Why such a dramatic turnaround in opinion so quickly, maybe the most dramatic turnaround I’ve ever had in so short a time span?  First, a theory on why much of “Santa sangre” put me off as I watched it, this even after I ate up every moment Jodorowsky’s cult classic “El topo” just days before and loved that film, arguably even more bizarre than “Santa Sangre”: “El topo” was just so surreal, defying all natural conventions of narrative and storytelling in being truly dreamlike and symbol-driven that it was abandon-all-logic-ye-who-enter-here.  There were no rules, so I just accepted anything and everything that Jodorowsky threw at me in this weird dream-desert that exists completely outside of our conception of time and space, all at face value, and it all equated to the closest film equivalent I can think of to eliot’s “The Waste Land” in basically being purely metaphor-driven and like visual poetry. 

“Santa sangre” doesn’t have that rule-less crutch that “El topo” has in that it does follow something at least resembling a coherent, straightforward narrative (at least by Jodorowski’s standards.  Otherwise, I’m not sure if you could call the story of a domineering, arm-less, sexually jealous mother forcing her submissive son to use his arms as her own to go on a murderous rampage “coherent” exactly…), so all of a sudden, the weird, upsetting images that were okay in the netherworld of “El topo” become the bad version of weird and upsetting in the world of “Santa sangre,” a world that at least somewhat seems to encompass the rules of logic and order that guide our own world, along with the usual Jodorowskian macabre flourishes, of course. 

So all of a sudden where I might’ve accepted the sight of a well-dressed man removing his own ear and rubbing it all over a deaf/mute girl’s face in a film like “El topo”, here I initially thought it was tasteless.  Where in the chaotic realm of “El topo” the sight of corpse after corpse of female murder victims rising from their graves to haunt their killer might’ve been commonplace, when that happens to the protagonist Fenix in “Santa sangre”, it seems more silly than anything.  An overabundance of physically-handicapped people seemed all well and good in the symbolic desert of “El topo,” whereas “Santa sangre’s” abundance of similarly physically handicapped people, at least outside of the circus scenes, such as Fenix’s dwarf friend and the profusion of young men with Down’s Syndrome who with Fenix are tricked into taking a detour during a field trip into the red light district, just seems plain insensitive on Jodorowsky’s part.  When young Fenix’s father Orgo, the brutish knife thrower of the circus in which Fenix is the world’s youngest magician and his mother, the cult leader Concha, is the trapeze artist, brands his young son’s chest with a large bird tattoo in order to make him into a man and the child cries in pain, I seriously considered turning the film off right then and there, the way I was wincing, and that doesn’t happen to me that often.  Tasteless, classless, I thought.

So how does eight hours of sleep turn tastelessness and classlessness into genius?  I’m not sure I can answer that in precise terms.  It just…works.  In a movie that supposedly has much more narrative coherence than the likes of “El topo”, there are still plenty of oddities that have nothing to do with a plot involving Fenix’s submissiveness and Concha’s jealous madness, but merely contribute to the unsettling and odd Freudian/Fellini-esque/ Buñuelian atmosphere, to the point where you should just forget the terms Freudian and Fellini-esque and Buñuelian and just say it’s Jodorowskian with how completely original it is.  Early on we’re perfectly aware that this story, at least within the realm of the flashback of an institutionalized Fenix, concerns young Fenix, his crush on the deaf and mute Alma, his father Orgo’s affair with Alma’s mother the Tattooed Woman, and the bulldozing of Concha’s church, which worships a girl whose arms were chopped off by rapists and whose blood allegedly fills a pool in the church’s center (blood that’s simply red paint according to the horrified local monsignor).  And yet, while Concha and her fellow church patrons sing while facing the oncoming police and bulldozers and Orgo seductively throws knives at the Tattooed Woman as a surrogate for sex, we watch as Fenix cries for a dying elephant, blood pouring out of its trunk – arguably superfluous to the rest of the story, but damn tragic to see all that blood combined with Fenix’s tears.  We see the bizarre sight of a large funeral procession for an even larger coffin, as Orgo leads black-clad clowns and other circus-folk and the coffin containing the elephant, which in a scene that could be right out of Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” is then thrown into an alley for starving villagers to scavenge: bizarre, inexplicable, disturbing, but in its own way, very, very funny.  All of this – the elephant, the Church of Santa Sangre, the funeral procession, father’s cruel tattooing of son (which shows just how awful a man Orgo is, when he truly, seriously thinks that what he’s doing is for the well-being of his son), and later the genital-maiming and arm-slicing that would morph Fenix from sweet child into primitive, unhinged man, just barely qualify as a plot progression from point A to point B, but more importantly just set up the kind of strange, sometimes-wondrous, sometimes-horrifying world that Fenix resides in.  What could possibly be a more awesome, dynamic image than the bulldozing of a church featuring a pool of blood (or paint) and the statue of an armless schoolgirl, while a red-robed Concha sobs arm-in-arm with Fenix, while a dwarf and a couple of clowns cry and console each other and the mother and son?  Silly-looking clowns combined with shredded wood and plaster and tears – Jodorowskian, I can’t describe it any other way.

The first half of this film contains curious oddities and a kind of day-in-the-life structure within that strange circus, concluding with a jarring bout of violence, but the second half, featuring an adult Fenix and his lending his arms to his mother and their murderous rampage, is probably where “Santa sangre” gets its reputation as a so-called horror film.  The violence is shocking and gratuitously bloody and tiptoes the fine line between chilling beauty and nauseating exploitation, but I think it’s so attractive precisely because it tiptoes that line, and you’re not sure which one Jodorowsky’s going for, so you’re repulsed, no doubt, but also titillated by the combination of blood, quick cuts, and jazzy music – some of the more creative death scenes and depiction of violence I’ve seen in some time.  And maybe, for a purpose.  That inexplicable image I mentioned before of the well-dressed man ripping off his (hopefully) artificial ear and smearing it across Alma’s face, for instance – seemingly superfluous, but really one of many moments of the inexplicable, the bizarre, trusting one who should not be trusted.  Imagine the terror of Alma, escaping from a near-rape at the hands of a drunk giant (I don’t lie), running through a red-light district without the aid of hearing or a voice, coming across a professional-looking man who might be able to help her, and having THAT happen?   A series of bizarre images within the dream-like realm of “El topo” is already unsettling enough, but just imagine being deaf and mute and having the same type of bizarre, nightmarish thing that belongs within the realm of dreams happen to you in the real world.  I’m sure it symbolizes something, just as every single thing in “El topo” symbolized something, but I’m not gonna bother speculating on some Freud or Christian shit.  It was weird and nightmarish, so I just put myself in Alma’s position and took it at its horrifying, unsettling face value.  Just like I’m sure everything symbolizes something, like maybe the armless saint worshipped by Concha’s church is Jodorowsky’s criticism of the Catholic church, or how Fenix and Concha’s bizarre relationship might represent bizarre Freudian sexual frustrations between mother and son in a way that puts Norman and Mother Bates to shame.  But this is all speculation, as again, I’d much rather just take it at face value and immerse myself in this disturbing but wildly imaginative world.

Of course the most enduring image of “Santa sangre” is that of Fenix situating himself behind his mother and slipping his arms into the sleeves of her outfits and utilizing those arms as if they were hers.  And what an image that is!  You wonder how much rehearsal must’ve gone into those kinds of scenes, because as Concha performs on stage with Fenix nearly invisible behind her, or Concha ‘plays’ the piano with Fenix’s nail polished hands, you will believe that these are Concha’s hands.  It’s almost as if there’s a psychic connection between mother and son that allows son’s arms to become mother’s so seamlessly (which will be explained in a late and unexpected plot development), to the point that a scene in which Fenix and Concha play the theme of the Santa Sangre church on the piano, complete with a full camera pan around the pair, takes on an eerie beauty with how close these two are, despite how unhealthy that closeness is in Freudian/psychological terms.  Do things get really silly and borderline-exploitative?  Sure – the sight of Fenix fighting an Amazon-esque strong woman while his mother, dressed as Cleopatra, spurs on her son to kill the woman, is hysterical, as is Fenix literally struggling to control his murderous arms as they’re practically magnetized towards a potential victim – they really do become his mother’s.  Silly, but incredibly unique in how cheap production value and odd acting and overly-dramatic music can combine into a wonderfully peculiar whole.  The dual performance of Fenix – Adan Jodorowsky as the young Fenix and his brother Axel as the adult Fenix (Alejandro Jodorowski’s nepotism once again knows no bounds) – is surprisingly effective, and not just because they look incredibly similar, which can only help the seamless transition from flashback to present day.  Adan comes off as a sweet kid whose tears for the dying elephant might bring you to tears, and Axel, while looking similar, comes off as much more introverted, desperate to reach out to others and find love but hopelessly withdrawn and obsessed with the Invisible Man (one of a number of questionable and overly-obvious pieces of symbolism, along with the so-called saint with no arms, I admit), furthering the sheer emotional trauma of that night involving his parents.  Some of Axel’s scenes are very, very silly, as Fenix begs his mother to have mercy on this victim or that while he himself is committing the deed, and overacts to the point where you just have to laugh, but in a way, that just makes things even more odd, more interesting, and despite that overacting, he comes off as a broken shell of a man that you have to feel for and wish the best for.  A late scene, in fact, involves a reunion between Fenix and Alma – the way they hold each other, and the camera moves around them, all set to a particularly lovely guitar theme that I considered the centerpiece of a surprisingly great score, is absolutely beautiful.  Of course there’s more mother-centric and cult film-esque silliness to follow, but a poignant reprieve like this, that shows that Jodorowsky is a much more tender and compassionate artist than all the violence and blood and maiming would outwardly suggest, was just one thing that elevated this movie into something special.

“Santa sangre” works fine as a horror film, with plenty of jump-outta-your-seat moments and killings and expressionistic settings like Fenix and Concha’s dank mansion and what-not, and sure it’s weird and exploitative and conducive to being considered a cult classic in only a way Jodorowsky can come up with, but there’s just something about it – it’s a horror film, a black comedy, a cult film, and at the same time, none of these things in how different it is from anything I’d seen before.  Axel Jodorowsky may not be to acting what his enormously talented father is to directing, but I felt like I was able to get into Fenix’s head (and his mother’s by default, for that matter) like few other flawed protagonists I’ve seen in quite a while, to the point that he’s extraordinarily worthy of our sympathy, despite everything.  Modern-day Mexico may be nothing new on a film screen, but as seen through Fenix’s eyes, it’s a world that has to be seen to be believed.


3 comments so far

  1. Lauren on

    Sounds vile.

  2. Simon M. on

    I don’t deny it.

  3. Lisa on

    I saw this film for the first time a few days ago, and it was what I could only describe as an “experience.” After sitting on it for a few days, though, I’m still left with an unsettled feeling–one of those good unsettled feelings that means that the film made more of an impression on me than most.

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