El Topo review – weird western is still a surreal classic

Alejandro Jodorowsky's disorientating and iconic cult film is back in cinemas with a shiny new 4K restoration

Though a restoration of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo is hardly unwelcome – new clarity and colour allowing an even more immersive dip into this ocean of madness – a 4K re-release of his surrealist classic almost seems wrong somehow. Though it makes for a mesmerising cinematic experience, El Topo, with all its barbarity and transgressive imagery, feels like a film to discover on a scratchy VHS tape, the technical imperfections only serving to increase its illicit allure.

While it certainly shares a lot of DNA with the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, El Topo sets out its stall immediately as something different, far stranger, and more mythic. As the titular El Topo (played by Jodorowsky himself) rides into frame in the first scene – part Yul Brynner, part Moses, all enigma – he’s accompanied by his nude seven year old son (played by Jodorowsky’s actual son, Brontis) – an image that immediately puts you on edge whilst also efficiently elevating El Topo above any attempts to “understand” it in a literal sense.

Yes, there is a plot here, as our vaguely mystical hero journeys through a ghost-white desert, hunting down the four “masters of the gun” who reside there, only to kill them with dishonourable tricks and traps. But this story is in service of Jodorowsky’s imagery, never the other way around. It is stunning imagery, steeped in dream logic, Biblical allusions, and bastardised religious iconography, and Jodorowsky’s style generally resists any attempts to decode it. El Topo’s visuals are violent and sexual, grotesque and transcendent, and though they might certainly stray too far into exploitative territory when dealing with rape and deformities, they still ensure an unforgettable experience.

Just as bold is Jodorowsky’s use of sound. In moments of great stress, a cacophonous wailing of discordant instruments hits you with just as much force as the bloody carnage occurring on screen. Yet the soundscape and score are as disorienting and disquieting in more subtle moments too – few films have managed to capture the horrible aggression that can be found in mocking laughter as well as in El Topo. Men have women’s voices and women have men’s (one woman’s dialogue is even dubbed over by birdsong), while footsteps echo impossibly loudly through a ransacked village, as if the action is taking place in a giant, invisible cathedral. It makes for a fever dream atmosphere in which it’s impossible to trust your eyes or ears.

El Topo’s journey through the desert is where the film is at its most visually and symbolically striking, but it’s most conventionally engaging when Jodorowsky brings his magical drifter hero into civilisation. Packs of bandits go to war with vengeful priests and a town of cultists serves as a showcase for the grotesquery of the upper classes. It’s in these moments that Jodorowsky matches his weirdness with pure entertainment, mining black comedy and social commentary from the coteries of freaks he’s dreamed up. Though it may not have aged perfectly, it’s still clear why El Topo inspired a cult following, from midnight movie crowds in New York, to David Lynch, to the Beatles. Now’s your chance to enter this mystifying and unholy church.

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