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Film review: ‘El Topo’ and the subverted West

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'El Topo'

Courtesy of The Grand Illusion Cinema.

“El Topo” translates as “The Mole.” This is a peculiar title for anybody to adopt, but Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest screening at the Grand Illusion Cinema uses the name to deliberately tease the loose cannon of the Western. His “acid Western” forsakes the tropes of anti-heroes, damsels in distress, and other archetypes that color the fictional Southwest of the spaghetti Western. Jodorowsky instead focuses on the chaotic underbelly that governs the plots of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood flicks, exposing the grotesque violence that strings those narratives along.

Taken at face value, there is no glory in life nor in death. The Mole is someone who digs holes in the foundations of a crumbling society, with little regard for the consequences of his actions. This thesis is clearly illustrated in the humiliation of characters: a colonel is castrated before being allowed to die by suicide; the Mole’s son is left without clothing while traveling with his father; and even the graves of fallen foes are turned into beehives.

The human condition is the catalyst for change in other Westerns, but not in Jodorowsky’s nihilistic take on justified sociopathy. The Mole is the embodiment of this depravity: defiling men, women, and children to rid himself of an enigmatic ennui. As an exploration into the psyche of a Western protagonist, there is nothing sacred to him. Neither the church, the natural world, his companions, nor anything else the Mole encounters seems to pique his interest beyond becoming a subject of mutilation and torment.

All that remains for the Mole is a series of duels meant to cement his glory as a gunslinger. Jodorowsky’s character spares nothing in pursuit of glory; yet, there is almost a sense of nobility in his persistence. A ballad of spurting blood and crumpled foes follows him from one duel to the next, but without any true goal in mind. After all, Jodorowksy asks the audience: What is there to do in life but wait for death?

When the final duelist shoots themself rather than face the formidable Mole, the protagonist achieves his epiphany. As a harbinger of death, the prospect of life without a justification for delusional thoughts begets remorse for the Mole. He returns to the site of his vanquished foes to mourn, only to be shot himself.

The Mole lies in a cave for years, surrounded by maimed, mutilated bystanders who are helpless to escape the eternal cycle of butchery and depravity. Awakened, the Mole digs himself and, more importantly, his disciples out of their literal cave.

Since the Mole’s “resurrection,” a wretched cult has formed, born from the sins committed by the Mole, and are eager to continue the bloodshed. Glory to be found in the endless slaughter of innocents, foes, and bystanders alike still serves as the economy of the West. Little else has changed since the Mole’s presumed death, but the Mole is an anachronism in the new world which he emerges.

The Mole’s son, Hijo, is now a grown man, waiting to rid the world of his father.

Little is done to prepare anyone for the ceaseless ringing of gunfire. As the disciples emerge into this terra nova, they are gunned down in the same fashion as their predecessors. Hijo can only stand by and watch. Jodorowsky contrasts the passivity of the son with the actions of the Mole, who remains a fiery man willing to massacre others. The only shift in attitude is the seeming justification of revenge in this new hellfire that emerges from the hole.

The bloody climax is the quintessential moment of clarity for the Western. The Mole is in his element, dealing and receiving fatal blows, whilst boring holes in the structures around him. But Jodorowsky doesn’t wish to leave audiences with a tale of heroism. There is no moral to this story.

The Mole, out of frustration with his actions, immolates himself. The story ends with this scene of a burning hatred finally being swallowed by the physical embodiment of his rage. Hijo buries his father, out of respect for custom, and rides off into the sunset as his father did with him at the beginning of the film.

There is no glory for gunslingers or pacifists. Nothing has changed.

Reach writer Andy Chia at Twitter: @GreatBaconBaron.  

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