A black-clad gunslinger travelling with a naked seven year old boy comes across a slaughtered village, and seeks out the perpetrators, intending to enact vengeance on behalf of the victims. Upon finding the men responsible, the man deals out some justice before moving on, swapping the kid for an adult women, who promises to love him if he can defeat the four great masters living in the desert. Later, he finds himself trying to dig a tunnel into a cavern, but first must earn money by performing street comedy.
Did that rough synopsis make sense to anyone? Well, that doesn’t really change even if you see the whole film, because this is a big bag of crazy wrapped in a giant Christ allegory, in which director Alejandro Jodorowsky pulls an M. Night Shyamalan and casts himself in the role of humanity’s saviour. Firstly, Jodorowsky’s character, who is credited as El Topo, which means The Mole, but he is never referred to by name, responds to the question of why he gets to judge people with the claim that “I am God.” He is also able to perform miracles, such as finding edible eggs buried in the desert sands and shooting boulders until they spout water; at one point he is shot multiple times yet walks away with just holes in his hands and feet, as though he has been crucified, and later he dies, but comes back to life again underground. I’m sure there are more references in there too, but these were the more obvious ones.
This is an uncomfortably and unexpectedly gory film. For starters, the slaughtered village at the start is particularly gruesome. Topo first enters the village after seeing a small child’s corpse, skewered atop a tall pointed pole, with a pool of blood surrounding it. The whole village has been killed, with the bodies of the people and livestock strewn across the ground and a literal river of blood flows from them, plus the various guts unspooled from their former owners. The church is filled with hanging bodies, with the deafening creak of the ropes all that can be heard, whilst outside the score sounds like a variety of birds all chained to a rusty door. Elsewhere there’s insinuated rape, a man making love to an outline of a woman he has created using small rocks, a group of old, overweight women forcing their black slave to perform sexual acts on them, before having him killed for rape, and a man gives his female cast-offs to his underlings, who he makes act like dogs. Elsewhere, there’s a lot here that’s just plain odd, such as the four masters Topo must defeat. One is blind, but has acquired the ability to, when shot, allow the bullets to pass through the gaps in his body, barely hurting him. He has two assistants; one with no arms and the other with no legs. who work together Master-Blaster style to get stuff done, with one carrying the other. The second master lives in a circus wagon with his mother and a lion, and has learned to make very delicate, intricate structures. The third lives with dozens of rabbits, and the fourth is an old hermit who traded his gun for an all powerful butterfly net. A random female stranger shows up mid way through the quest to entice the existing woman, and there’s a sex scene entirely covered in sand, which I figured must be the most uncomfortable thing ever. Just think of the friction. Urgh. And there’s a scene where a little boy shoots himself in the head. It’s kind of accidental, but it’s definitely uncalled for. I had many, many questions after watching this film, but the main one was “Why did I just watch this film?”
It’s certainly a unique experience, both among westerns and film in general, but it also felt like a crazed fever dream inspired in equal parts by the Bible, Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Tod Browning’s Freaks. It’s not a very coherent or logic-based story, but then I don’t think it’s supposed to be, especially with regards to the middle segment involving the four masters. Each one seems to exist in a state of anticipation for Topo to arrive, with no existence but to await his arrival and fight him, This is especially true of the last two, who exist nowhere near any kind of shelter or anything of particular material value that would suggest a lived-in environment. How they live outside of their scenes is not to be considered. Also, some of the film’s logic is insane, such as the line “The desert is round; to find the masters we must travel in circles.” No. Just no.
There are some elements that are more interesting than they utterly insane, such as the depiction of a man’s transition from a seeker of justice via honour and fairness, to resorting to cheap, underhand tactics to achieve a goal someone else has assigned him, plus his later means of redemption for the sins he has committed in quite possibly a literal other life. I’m sure much could be written regarding various themes and meanings behind it all, such as the mysterious stranger bringing a mirror with her, within which the woman travelling with El Topo sees her reflection for the first time and is transfixed by her own beauty. This frustrates Topo into shooting the mirror, but it is with these broken fragments that he is able to defeat the second master, so he gained from the woman’s vanity, whatever that might mean in the long run.
As I mentioned, the primary adjective for El Topo is “unique,” but that doesn’t necessarily make it good, or even recommendable. I gained little here other than confusion and, whilst there’s a lot that could be expanded upon and some very memorable scenes, this is not something I’d advise others to see.
Choose Life 5/10