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Film Review: Acid Buddhism and a journey to the ‘The Holy Mountain’

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'The Holy Mountain'

If “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is a facetious retelling of Arthurian legend, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film the “The Holy Mountain” may be a Buddhist-influenced, post-colonial, psychedelic adventure of Jesus and the seven deadly sins.

Screening at the Grand Illusion Cinema until Oct. 15, the “The Holy Mountain” is a gripping and morbid film about the futile attempts by man to become enlightened in a Christian tradition that is hellbent on keeping him in the dark. Within the opening sequence, a nameless figure — who bears an uncanny resemblance to ecclesiastical depictions of Jesus — appears limp in mud. He is soon swarmed by insects that represent the very real consequence of crucifixion: death.

Unlike in Christian theology, Jodorowsky abhors the imagery of purity in death. The director depicts the resurrection of this Jesus-like figure as an even more sordid affair. Naked children draped in bloody clothes carry “Jesus” to a cross inside a cave, only to nail him to said cross once more. These children then line up to pelt him with dung and stones, jeering all the while.

This opening scene is emblematic of Jodorwosky’s style. The film continually depicts Latin American history from a Eurocentric viewpoint, only to have the reenactments display hard-to-stomach truths: The sacking of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) by conquistadors is now a gory mess, the poverty of the Indigenous populations lines the literal streets, and white tourists voyeuristically point their cameras at locals to gather memorabilia of their so-called “cultural experience.”

“The Holy Mountain” maintains this surreal atmosphere by positioning “Jesus” as an actor in all of these scenes. Based and depraved, he fits the perverse European influence in Latin America. This is especially apparent in the climax of act one, where burly, shirtless men dressed as Roman Legionaries create lifesize casts of “Jesus” for the Catholic masses, which “Jesus” then smashes with fervor.

Given the other faithless depictions of Christian imagery, it is only fitting that “Jesus” ascends a heavenly tower to meet a God-like figure in a similarly cynical way. In the tower, “Jesus” is renamed “The Thief,” and his “God” is revealed to be “The Alchemist,” someone who can offer the thief an opportunity to become enlightened.

The thief is a stand-in for Jodorowsky’s personal assertion that Catholicism is ill-suited for the people of Latin America, as it is too corrupt and too vile. It is also worth noting that Jodorowsky himself plays “The Alchemist” — a casting choice that serves as a self-insert for the Buddhist Jodorowsky, a liaison to the Eastern world he studied.

From this point onward, the Catholic influence of the film serves as a foil to Buddhist myth. Jodorowsky brings in a cast of seven characters prevalent in modern capitalism: bankers, industrialists, police, and other members of hierarchical power inherent to Western society. Each member represents one of the seven deadly sins and serves as caricatures of the vice they embody.

What ensues is the surreal reincarnation of the sinners.

The sinners go through the funerary rights that mark the end of their past lives. Unlike in the Christian tradition, which promotes the immortality of the soul, “The Alchemist” has each member of the group burn their money and effigies of themselves as a representation of the Buddhist understanding of rebirth. Once finished effacing themselves, the sinners are born anew. 

Jodorowsky’s work centers on the existential question of whether man can change. “The Thief” refuses to abide by this self-effacing activity, which Jodorowsky then uses to demonstrate the internal corruption of Christianity — particularly that of the Church and the common adherent. At his journey’s end, he is the only character who gives up the search for the “Holy Mountain,” instead opting to return to Earth.

The other characters suffer a fate that is far more sinister. The Holy Mountain was never a source of enlightenment, nor was it a way to wipe the slate clean. Seated at a roundtable with Jodorowsky’s character, they are forced to consider their past deeds.

Perhaps this is the message that Jodorowsky wanted to leave the viewer with: there is no escape from your past. Enlightenment may require the cleansing of one's soul, but there is no way of truly being reborn.

Reach writer Andy Chia at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @GreatBaconBaron.  

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