Saoirse’s Cult Corner #5: The Rainbow Thief (1990)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This fortnight we continue the deep dive into the career of Alejandro Jodorowsky to tie into the fabulous new Arrow Video release in March. For now, though we will take you through the back catalogue of Jodorowsky, not on the release to sufficiently contextualise what comes next. 

Today we talk about the very strange, comedy The Rainbow Thief. 

Content warning, there’s a big touching on grief here.

Anyone who’s read my piece on ‘Santa Sangre’ will find this movie very confusing and a bit of a surprise. That being said, anyone who’s seen any Jodorowsky movie will be surprised by this movie. It’s by far his most straight, it’s by far his starriest, and it’s by far his… maybe his sweetest…? 

Santa Sangre’ was not just a return to form but a return for Jodorowsky. 9 years since his last movie, 16 years since the last movie that even got a release, his masterpiece ‘The Holy Mountain’, and then within a year he works with big shot Italian producer Claudio Argento on one movie and then a cast like this on another. I’ve heard this film called ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ two as it’s main characters are played by Peter O’ Toole & Omar Sharif. The real gem though is Christopher Lee, playing the charmingly mad Rudolf Von Tannen. The film opens with Tannen riding a bucking bronco through his mansion giving his many dalmatians champagne. This is a wonderful tone-setter for the rest of the movie. Charming, whimsical, endearingly plotless & unhinged.

Although Christopher Lee’s Tannen is by far the most entertaining & compelling character in the film, (staying away from spoilers as much as possible), the majority of the time is spent exploring the complicated and eccentric relationship between Peter O’ Toole’s “Prince” Meleagre and Omar Sharif Dima. The quotation marks are because the film is about the promise of wealth. It may well be that Meleagre is a prince, but for the whole film wealth is treated like Godot in ‘Waiting for Godot’ and Sharif and O’ Toole, the two paupers slowly going mad around its absence as they wait for the metaphorical gallows, that being poverty, that being, ultimately, death, and anonymity. The film explores this obsession with wealth as a measure to improve one’s life in a very straightforward arc. These two men, who are absolutely crazy, insane people, clearly feel very deeply for each other, yet they bicker endlessly like a married couple because resentment has settled over their condition living in the sewers. However, by the end, they have learned that their relationship and genuine love for each other is all they ever needed to be happy. For a film so obsessed with happiness as related to wealth, the moral is surprisingly Marxist. 

The lives of the pair are beautifully realised and really the emotional heart of the film. You go in expecting a film like Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Fisher King’, a film that revels in the anarchic, instead, you find a film that is downbeat, beautiful, yet grimy. It shares Terry Gilliam’s obsession with the crazy and romanticism but with a much more cynical tone. The whole film meets this very strange tone of somehow being incredibly dour and sad and romantic and whimsical. There’s a point in the narrative where, with mounting debts, Dima decides to jump a train to leave, and you understand why. His day to day life is with a man who he loves but hates, in a living situation we romanticise him for, (living in a sewer) yet must be hell to live in, yet every relationship he has in his day to day life is that of whimsical fantasy, the juxtaposition emphasises the possibilities of happiness in life outside of his current situation. The mise-en-scene of the sewers conveys chaos, the colour palette conveys grime, and the dialogue is sharp and spiky in its antagonism. In fact, it is the primary achievement of the film is to convey through this bickering a deep affection. It is so true to life, this aspect of relationships, that through conversations that to everyone in the room seems spiteful, a deep love is conveyed, that through toxic masculinity can never be addressed. In this way the film plays into a long tradition of homoerotic fiction about two men who really crush hard on each other but can never address it because that would undermine the masculinity they find so attractive in each other, see ‘Fight Club’ for a prime example. 

The real key to this film though is in the dedication. It is dedicated to someone called Alfonso Dominguez “The Painter, My Brother”, presumably the brother of the writer, (this is one of the few films Jodorowsky made that he didn’t write). This is the epitome of the tone of the film, in that it is just really filled with love, with joy for the human spirit. It’s clear this isn’t written by Jodorowsky not just because it isn’t surreal, (although it is very tonally offbeat), but because it’s meaning is quite straightforward. This film feels like a celebration of a very specific type of archetype in cinema, which has taken root because of a relationship it has with a particular kind of person we’ve all known in life. The person who rejects conventional social structures, lives by their own rules, and is happier because of it. The freedom that inspires in us, in a way we never have the balls to go and attain but wish we could. In a way, ‘The Rainbow Thief’ is the most realistic version of that I’ve seen because it is depicted as a very hard and miserable life. The dedication, being at the front of the film, makes the whole thing feel as if it’s dedicated to this one archetype of person. I, myself have my Dima. I have a person in my life who I loved because of their uniqueness, because they forged their own path through hardship, and because they never, ever, through everything, copped to other’s standards for them. They died of lung disease far too young. They had a good inning though, even if it got hard. I knew them for a limited time but while I did they touched me so deeply through this attitude to life. This is the true beauty of the film, if you’ve ever suffered a tragedy through losing such a beautiful human, this will affect you. If you’ve ever known someone who’s had to leave your life who’ll have inspired you to be better than you are, this will affect you. If you’ve ever had a black sheep in your family who taught you that being a black sheep was aspirational because it meant being your own person, this film will mean at least a little bit to you. This film is far from perfect but will leave you on the verge of blubbering if it connects with you through having known that person.

I have that person, and I miss him like hell every day. 

This is an unconventional end to this one but… This person was unconventional. I miss you like hell Richard, I miss you every day, I hope you’re doing better. 

This is dedicated to you. 

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