There are plenty of directors who use surrealism in their work. From Luis Bunuel to David Lynch, this mode of artistic expression has been explored many times in many ways. However, no one has ever done it quite the way Alejandro Jodorowsky has. This Chilean-born filmmaker has worked in a number of mediums over the years (everything from experimental theater to comic strips) and has created a handful of films along the way that still have the power to fry the synapses of filmgoers who think they’ve seen it all.
Santa Sangre is perhaps the best introduction to Jodorowsky’s work, marrying his adventurous style to a psychological thriller storyline that is the most accessible premise in any of his films. The plot revolves around the travails of Fenix, who is played by two of the director’s sons: Adan Jodorowsky during the character’s childhood scenes and Axel as an adult. He is born into a circus environment, torn between a philandering knife-thrower father (Guy Stockwell) and a mother (Blanca Guerra) who is prone to religious hysteria (she worships the title saint, inspired by a murdered and mutilated teen, and leads a cult for it).
Fenix tries to please both parents but when his father has an affair with a tattooed lady (Thelma Tixou), his mentally fragile mother responds with violence. The father dies but not before severing the mother’s arms with his knives. Fenix ends up spending the remainder of his childhood in a mental hospital. When he is an adult, his mother reappears and leads him into a surreal cycle of murder and theater. Meanwhile, Fenix’s lost love – Alma, a deaf mute girl he met during his circus days (Faviola Tapia as a girl, Sabrina Dennison as an adult) – searches for him… and she may be his last hope at escaping the waking nightmare his life has become.
As odd as the above synopsis might sound, it can’t prepare you for who eccentric the overall experience of Santa Sangre actually is. Jodorowsky packs the film with all manner of digressions and strange flourishes that make the story unforgettable: highlights include several scenes where Fenix “supplies” the arms for his mother, matching her comments and actions with an impressive display of arm-based miming, and a sequence where Fenix and his fellow mental patients (all of whom have Down’s Syndrome) being led down a vice-ridden street as they dance with transvestites to the sound of mambo music(!). This film also features the most eroticized knife-throwing act you’ll ever see, the kind of thing Freudian types will have a field day with.
Simply put, there is a stunning sight or moment every few minutes in this film and Jodorowsky’s skill at orchestrating these event ensures that it feels operatic instead of self-indulgent. That said, Santa Sangre isn’t all excesses. Between the outbursts of the surreal, Jodorowsky fashions a compelling psychological tale that is sometimes quite moving. He uses his storyline to comment on the vicious cycle of parents passing on their psychological troubles to their children. He also manages some memorably thrilling scenes, including a knife-murder sequence where one nasty character suffers a fate that rivals the best setpieces in an Argento or Fulci film.
Finally – and most importantly – Jodorowsky gets strong performances from his cast: Adan Jodorowsky gives an amazingly emotional performance as the young Fenix while Axel Jodorowsky’s work as the adult Fenix does a brilliant job of physically expressing his character’s inner torment. It is also worth noting that the elder Jodorowsky son and Guerra do amazing work in the scenes where his arms are used to “complete” her body, combining mime and performance art into a singularly stunning whole. Elsewhere, Tixou offers a performance as the tattooed lady that makes her one of cult cinema’s most stunning ‘bad girl’ characters.
The end result is truly a trip, in both senses of the word, and it is never at a loss for a new way to surprise the viewer. Some people like to debate Jodorowsky’s work, asking whether he is truly a surrealist or just a poseur who dresses genre trappings up in forced weirdness. One viewing of Santa Sangre will render that dispute meaningless. There is a point at which an artistic work goes so far off that beaten path that it is both deadly serious and a put-on all at once. Santa Sangre starts at that point and drags the audience by the neck, kicking and screaming, into the psycho-sexual beyond. If you are interested in the outer fringes of narrative filmmaking, this a movie you must see.