Film Review: Alejandro Jodorowsky, “The Dance of Reality”

Tl;dr: Five big stars, hooray, well done. What did I just watch oh my god.


If everything goes right, and you’re awake enough, and calm, then Jodorowsky will not creep up on you. But there is no – absolutely no – method for ultimately avoiding his capacity to stun you into a sort of fractured, agitated excitement, for amazing your eyes, for forcing you to laugh into your own teeth. Who is this man? Why did he once address an audience, via satellite uplink, naked, surrounded by pot plants and the cool light of a Chilean summer morning?


Jodorowsky – “Jodo” to his fans – is a master of amassing images of the sensuous and the peculiar. Think John Waters but less “gross”, more detailed. He is “psychedelic”. Somebody once patiently explained to me how “Jodo” is a believer in a specific mystical and divinatory program for charting fates and realities. There he is again, as if Christopher Lee had grown up in Santiago de Chile eating empanadas. You were saying “what” about divination?


“The Dance of Reality” is the only film to have made me – in a cinema – frequently glance over at the person sitting next to me (I knew them, I knew them) and smile/shrug/look through their skull. I did this several times, but they have no memory of this.


Why – after all – does the son wear a wig, if its owner, his grandfather, died in a conflagration? They boy has black hair, blonde hair. The wig – having been peeled uncomfortably from his head – fades away in a silly blush of gold dust. His mother only communicates in operatic singing. It sort of grows on you. Eventually, you don’t notice it. It is both absurd and, eventually, terribly sad. Everything seems to take place on a stage, but also in the mind, as if it didn’t exist. Everything is and is not performance.


The father, Jaime, rests upon the poisoned body of a hated dictator’s horse. He is weeping. We are weeping. The father becomes, gradually, the film’s protagonist. He was once himself cruel, and becomes wiser and humbler and better, but he is also transformed by the violence and anti-Semitism to which he is exposed. The family are victims.


The dead are everywhere, and the dying, and the possibly non-existent. At times you think, “ok, this is all too clear” – everything having been shot in super high quality digital film -, and at others the camera seems to blur and take on the condition of film. We’re in 8 mm territory when a group of black-clad people walk, slowly, painfully, down the slopes of the dead hills which jut up behind the town. And then – then – the blue, red, and yellow make our eyes sick. We sweat from all this light.


I had this feeling of “too much realness” early on. In fact, during the visit to the circus. It was here that the footage seemed most clear, most High Definition. Later everything seemed somehow less real, less in focus, as if there were a gentle unspooling here, the filmic form of cataracts. Life, senescence, was taking over. It should come as no surprise that the circus seemed “most real”. After all, this was a moment in which artifice was truly at home with itself. For the rest of the film, you’re never quite sure what is performance and what is, simply, “reality”. I get it now. Clever.


But it both is and is not a clever film. It is a sensation, a marvel. It is visually like too much birthday cake and crying uncontrollably outside in the rain. But it is also a grim, sick-smelling hospital waiting room. It is all too much. You can’t look away as Jaime is tortured, electrodes held to his testicles, the walls the colour of a poor quality painting of a pair of lungs. This is – after all – a political film, a canvas of the history of individual imaginary lives as well as hard, brutal realities, the real blood of Chile, the sweating pampas of Argentina.


This was – is – a beautiful and strange and very daring film. To put in another way, it is the film of an auteur, which I always think deserves – even when the film itself is bad – a sort of quiet nod, the way you might appreciatively kick the tyres of a beautiful but ultimately flawed car. But this isn’t a bad film. This is the product of a single, driven, imagination. Nobody else could have made a film like this. And that, of course, is its strength. I loved it. But it is not “easy”. It is uncomfortable.


Unanswered questions, apropos of nothing – what happened to the red shoes? Did the plague victims recover, or die, or disappear? Why did the firefighters rush to the scene of the blaze only to tear the building down anyway?


The way out, into a late summer London night. St James Park was pitch black. Somewhere, sirens, and voices, and shoes crunching over gravel. My friend was there too, her head tilted to one side, her hair green in the light (but it is really green, right?). She asked, “How was it?”




I hope this goes some way to answering that question.


Owen Vince is a poet, design critic and editor. He has written for places like The Arcade Review and Failed Architecture, and runs PYRAMID Editions poetry press. His debut pamphlet, Neolithic, will be published in November 2015 by Lapwing. He also tweets sometimes @abrightfar

Submit a comment