El Topo

El Topo (English translation: “The Mole“) is a 1970 Mexican western drama film written, scored, directed by and starring Alejandro Jodorowsky. Characterized by its bizarre characters and occurrences, use of maimed and dwarf performers, and heavy doses of Christian symbolism and Eastern philosophy, the film is about the eponymous character – a violent, black-clad gunfighter – and his quest for enlightenment.[1]

Jodorowsky (born 1929) is a man of many talents, all at the service of his bizarre imagination. At Cannes 1988 he handed me a typewritten autobiography: “Was born in Bolivia, of Russian parents, lived in Chile, worked in Paris, was the partner of Marcel Marceau, founded the ‘Panic’ movement with Fernando Arrabal, directed 100 plays in Mexico, drew a comic strip, made ‘El Topo,’ and now lives in the United States — having not been accepted anywhere, because in Bolivia I was a Russian, in Chile I was a Jew, in Paris I was a Chilean, in Mexico I was French, and now, in America, I am a Mexican.” [4]

The film takes place in two parts. The first half resembles a western; albeit a surreal one. The second is a love story of redemption and rebirth.[1]

Part 1[1]:

The first half opens with El Topo (played by Jodorowsky himself) traveling through a desert on horseback with his naked young son, Hijo. They come across a town whose inhabitants have been slaughtered, and El Topo hunts down and kills the perpetrators and their leader, a fat balding Colonel. El Topo abandons his son to the monks of the settlement’s mission and rides off with a woman whom the Colonel had kept as a slave. El Topo names the woman Mara, and she convinces him to defeat four great gun masters to become the greatest gunman in the land. Each gun master represents a particular religion or philosophy, and El Topo learns from each of them before instigating a duel. El Topo is victorious each time, not through superior skill but through trickery or luck.

After the first duel, a black-clad woman with a male voice finds the couple and guides them to the remaining gun masters. As he kills each master, El Topo has increasing doubts about his mission, but Mara persuades him to continue. Having killed all four, El Topo is ridden with guilt, destroys his own gun and revisits the places where he killed those masters, finding their graves swarming with bees. The unnamed woman confronts El Topo and shoots him multiple times in the manner of stigmata. Mara then betrays him and rides off with the woman, while El Topo collapses and is carried away by a group of dwarves and mutants.

Part 2[1]:

The second half of the film takes place years later. El Topo awakes in a cave, to find that the tribe of deformed outcasts have taken care of him and set him up as a God-like figure, while he has been asleep and meditating on the gun masters’ “four lessons”. The outcasts dwell in a system of caves which have been blocked in — the only exit is out of their reach due to their deformities. When El Topo awakes, he is “born again” and decides to help the outcasts escape. He is able to reach the exit and, together with a dwarf girl who becomes his lover, performs for the depraved cultists of the neighboring town to raise money for dynamite.

Hijo, now a young monk, arrives in the town to be the new priest, but he is disgusted by the perverted form of religion the cultists practice. Despite El Topo’s great change in appearance Hijo recognizes him and threatens to kill him on the spot for abandoning him as a child, but agrees to wait until he has succeeded in freeing the outcasts. Hijo grows impatient at the time the project is taking, and begins to work alongside El Topo to hasten the moment when he will kill him. At the point when Hijo is ready to give up on finishing the tunnel, El Topo breaks through into the cave. The tunnel has been completed, but Hijo finds that he cannot bring himself to kill his master.

The outcasts come streaming out, but as they enter the town, they are shot down by the cultists. El Topo helplessly witnesses his community being slaughtered and is shot himself. Ignoring his own wounds he massacres the cultists, then takes an oil lamp and immolates himself. His girlfriend gives birth at the same time as his death, and she and his son make a grave for his remains. This becomes a beehive like the gun masters’ graves.

As the film ends, El Topo’s son, girlfriend, and baby ride off on horseback, the son now wearing his father’s clothes.

At its heart, the film is a violent and deeply mystical dream-play about a mythical gunfighter cleansing himself of the violence of his past, only to discover that the world itself has already been corrupted by the bloodshed of the present (with the film making barbed cultural references to the escalating violence of the twentieth century; with the atrocities of the holocaust, the violence of the Spanish Civil War, the massacres of Vietnam and the escalating tensions in the middle-east all informing the heavily-stylised and overruling spirit of anger and aggression).[3]

Graham Greene from United Kingdom, 29 December 2007

El Topo (the mole, played by Joudorowsky) seeks the light, but as we learn in the opening sequence, the light will instantly blind him. His desires and the actions they inspire progress from primitive detached self-indulgence to redemptive self-sacrifice. He does wonderful things, and loathsome things, and the consequences of his actions are never as he intended. Thematically, the story hints at the connection between Taoist concepts of acting through inaction and mystical aspects of some western religions – simultaneously suggesting that only God can know the mind of God and that if no god exists, humans must acknowledge their dependence on the forces that govern the universe and seek harmony by yielding to them.[3]

mstomaso from Vulcan, 16 August 2008

Jodorowsky always insisted that it was never intended to be a comedy, a tragedy, a political film nor a religious film – it meant to be everything, all genres. [2]

Jodorowsky … was creating a film of emotions, violence, salvation, and redemption—so he intentionally did not follow the expected structure of most films regarding first, second and third acts and when major conflicts occur.[3]

Chris J. from Seattle WA, 12 November 1998

El Topo rides into frame on a white desert dressed all in black (black horse, black umbrella, black hat, a savage black beard) with sidekick “Hijo” (Brontis Jodorowsky), a small profoundly naked boy wearing only a hat, as if to announce the film’s recurring theme, the duality of man; knowing v. innocent. Indeed, two women appear early on (pure v. savage, helpless v. domineering) in which the lesbian context is not left to imagination, especially after they dispatch el Topo in a gunfight culminating in an allegory of crucifixion, after which the protagonist is reborn in a Brahma-like state, assigned to free outcasts from a cave (by digging a tunnel: hence “the mole” metaphor), only to release the outcasts into an “American” western town whose citizens worship only money (note the ubiquitous triangle containing a single eye) with yet more devastating consequences. Even after a few drinks, the religious odyssey from Christian to Hindu to Buddhist symbolism will be lost on no one. The film even seems to come full-circle as the end presages the beginning.[3]

IuvePatr from United States, 24 December 2003

The masters in the desert all have symbols and they down grade throughout the journey, the first master had a tower and a huge oasis, the second master had a wagon and a river, the third master had a little cover and a water hole, the fourth had a pole, a blanket and a sheet. The weapons also downgraded as well, the first had two guns, the second had one that could shoot several bullets, the third had one gun that could only fire one gun before reloading, the fourth only had a butterfly net. The masters of the desert were all tricked into being killed, the first one fell and was shot, he used to live high in a tower, the second master was tricked when the Mole sprinkled glass on the ground and hurt the second master’s mother. The third was tricked by using body armor ashtray. The fourth master killed himself and stopped the Mole from winning the battle. One other interesting piece of symbolism of the masters is the second and third master, the second master is wearing sheep and owns a lion and the third master has a rabbit farm. The rabbit, the lamb and the lion all play huge roles in Christianity.

The Mole is a strong symbol, he wears black and wherever he goes, death follows. When the Mole fights the third master all but three rabbits are dead because of the presence of the Mole. When the Mole is betrayed by his two women companions, for not paying enough attention to them, the women kill him. After being in a coma for years the Mole goes through a transformation change and shaves all of his hair and appears to look like a new born baby and takes on another task, to help the deformed people escape their hole. Unlike the his previous quest, his quest to free the deformed people is not for revenge but thanks for taking care of him. After working with one of the midget women, the Mole falls in love with her and soon she becomes pragent. After awhile the Mole, the dwarf woman and the Mole’s first son finally finish the tunnel and release the other deformed people. When the deformed people are killed, the Mole reverts back to his original ways and kills the entire town.[3]

thepartyoftea from BC, Canada, 5 November 2006

Perhaps what is most surprising when seeing this film for the first time in the present, is how powerful and singular the visuals remain, even when they’ve been ripped off and (usually) diluted so many times. To recall just a few: there was pretty much every official photo taken of John Lennon throughout 1969, Little Big Man, Missouri Breaks, Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, Star Wars, Dead Man

I know better than to try and make sense of a film like this, all you can do is breathe it in and let the thoughts roll where they will.

Is it good? Is it bad? Is it 6.3 out of 10? Or 7.9? Who Knows? Who Cares?!! It’s exquisite, it’s distorted and fragile, it asks you to look inside, it offers glimpses of the familiar, glimpses of the ridiculous, glimpses of terror, and glimpses of terror to come (again)…

[1] Wikipedia. El Topo. Retrieved 22 January 2017.
[2] horrornews.net. Film Review: El Topo (1970) – Review 2. By Nigel Honeybone. Posted on 02/29/2016. Retrieved 22 January 2017.
[3] IMDb. El Topo (1970). Retrieved 22 January 2017.
[4] .rogerebert.com. EL TOPO. By Roger Ebert, Posted on October 6, 2007. Retrieved 22 January 2017.

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