Alejandro Jodorowsky sometimes describes himself as a man without a country. Born in Chile to Ukrainian parents, he was pale and with curly hair while everyone around was darker with straight hair. In his hand-written autobiography, he once observed he, “[has] not been accepted anywhere.” This sense of alienation pervades The Dance of Reality, a film about Jodorowsky’s time in Tocopilla, a small coastal town. Sublime and surreal, Jodorowsky’s latest unfolds like a cross between a memoir and a fairy tale. Parts of the film are shocking, even grotesque, and yet somehow there’s an overall feeling of warm nostalgia.
President Ibáñez casts a shadow over Tocopilla, where the Jodorowskys live modestly. Young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) lives in terror of his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, the filmmaker’s son), a merchant who does not show any fatherly affection until Alejandro demonstrates several feats of strength. His mother (Pamela Flores) by comparison is a saint, albeit a buxom one. Flores is an opera singer, I suppose, since she sings all of her lines with a vibrato (Jodorowsky does not care to explain this choice, so we must accept it as is).
Young Alejandro is a familiar archetype in a coming of age film: he’s timid, observant, and quick to kindness. Jaime is the more intriguing figure: on one hand he can be cruel to his family, yet he’s also the heroic leader of an underground communist faction (Jaime idolizes Stalin). After Jaime’s attempt at philanthropy goes wrong, he conspires to assassinate Ibáñez. His botched attempt is a catalyst for a long journey, one where he veers from militant atheism toward humility, and then Christendom.
The Dance of Reality may unfold linearly, but Jodorowsky’s structure has all the beautiful flaws of memory. His exaggerated truth is not objective, but it gets us in the mindset of young Alejandro’s perception (Jodorowsky himself appears in the film, offering an ongoing poetic treatise on life, the universe, and everything). The first section of the film has a focus to its childlike perception: Alejandro worships his domineering father, who who believes pain develops character, so there are several trials for both father and son.
There is a telling episode where Alejandro scratches the back of a man without any arms (like in Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the disfigured make an important appearance). Jaime spurns the disfigured man, which leads to a violent confrontation between him and several others who are deformed. Jodorowsky uses these men as a reflection our instincts: they demand to have their humanity acknowledged, but do not reciprocate. Every child learns this lesson, one way another, and Jodorowsky’s genius is to force that epiphany with those who might initially make us recoil. By combining physical comedy with a sense of sorrow, the disjointed narrative is nonetheless compulsively watchable.
While The Dance of Reality is relatively tame in comparison to the director’s earlier work, the film is not for the timid. Splashes of blood are frequent, and there is protracted sequence where Jaime endures one form of torture after another. But the strangest thing about the film is its depiction of sex: Jodorowsky sexualizes his mother, explicitly so. This choice is meant to be human, not erotic. Flores is an imposing figure, and Jodorowsky’s vision of her is larger than life. Not only does she sing for the entire film, there is also a scene where she performs a miracle that’s both heartfelt, disgusting, and transgressive. All the nudity is matter-of-fact, as if Jodorowsky trusts his audience will not snicker. He’s the sort of man who sees that sophistication and base humor are not strange bedfellows, and his work reflects that juxtaposition.
Young Alejandro is absent for a significant stretch of the film, and that is so the filmmaker can focus on his father. The transition from a political ideologue to a wretched beggar is an affecting one, and that’s due to the fearless performance from Jodorowsky’s son. He does not make apologies for Jaime when he’s abusive, and he plays the man as if he’s the hero of his own story. Jodorowsky’s favorite shot is a wide one, with austere nature towering over a human figure, and the overwhelming physical landscape is felt strongly thanks to his son’s commanding figure. He’s not so expressive once Jaime loses his strength and eventually finds God. Jodorowsky’s describes himself as a “mythical atheist,” so while I doubt he shares Jaime’s eventual acceptance of Christ, he uses his father’s journey as a symbol for how it’s necessary to realize we are not the hero of any universe, especially ours. Jodorowsky may not believe in God, but he believes in humility through awe.
Using his alter ego Henry Chinaski, the late poet Charles Bukowski wrote an autobiographical series of novels, but Bukowski did not touch upon his childhood until he wrote about middle age first. The sense is that it takes wisdom, also a little courage, to write about the difficult early years. Jodorowsky is eighty-five years old, so he shares Bukowski’s reticence about childhood. But unlike the novel Ham on Rye, which is mostly about booze and isolation, The Dance of Reality takes powerful childhood symbols and puts them into a political context. Ibáñez and Stalin are galvanizing figures in Jodorowsky’s world – for the filmmaker and his father – and it takes Jaime the entire film to realize they’re distortions of his fantasy of himself. It’s a minor miracle that Jodorowsky can combine rich ideas like this with a golden shower scene that’s more touching than it is gross.