Saoirse’s Cult Corner #9: The Holy Mountain (1973)

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.

Today we talk about Jodorowsky’s cinematic classic, the epic quest fantasy, The Holy Mountain. 

Through our journey through the back catalog of Alejandro Jodorowsky we’ve seen a lot and covered much. We have addressed the many ups and downs of his career, from the soaring heights of El Topo to more mainstream and compromised works like The Rainbow Thief, and found a way to appreciate all of them. We have looked at, yes, his recurring and constant failings with his female characters but also his dazzling visuals and ways of getting stunning performances out of his actors. We’ve looked at his background in theatre, his recurrent themes of politics, religion, masculinity, quests, and self-actualization, his spirituality, and the way Jodorowsky delights not just in provocations, but also in speaking directly to the audience to try and enrich and enlighten their lives, (at one point literally in The Dance of Reality). Although our series on Jodorowsky is not yet finished, (we will cover his latest documentary, his comic book work, and more miscellaneous entries in his career), we have reached the pinnacle of his career, The Holy Mountain. Everything we’ve previously referenced is present here in its most prominent form. Although El Topo might just be my favorite from Alejandro Jodorowsky still, The Holy Mountain is inarguably the most Jodorowsky movie. 

Jodorowsky’s career had never been better and probably never would be again when he made The Holy Mountain. He was chased out of local film festivals when he screened Fando y Lis in the 60s, then he made El Topo, which was unsurprisingly rejected by all major distributors. Fortunately, two very important people got to see El Topo doing the underground art circuit and that was John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Paul MacCartney was also a fervent supporter of the film. Lennon became distressed that no major studios would make important pictures like El Topo and underground distributors would never get people to see them so he got his manager, Alan Klein to bankroll whatever Jodorowsky wanted to make next, and oh boy did he, (it was also Klein who soon fell out with Lennon and Jodorowsky pulling the rights to El Topo & The Holy Mountain for decades).

As with most Jodorowsky works, it is not well served by a plot summary but it is necessary to do a cursory one just to make explaining quite what makes this film so enigmatic at all doable. The films follows a band of 10 intrepid explorers who are collectively war criminals, arms dealers, and bad factory artists, (I’d like to see what Jodorowsky thinks of Andy Warhol), who embark on a kaleidoscopic adventure to find immortal life, led by a spirit guide played by Jodorowsky himself, (subtle). 

It is important to know here that between Fando y Lis and El Topo, Jodorowsky kind of found God in a strange way. When I say God, I have to quote my GCSE Religious Education teacher when he tells me that Buddhism isn’t quite a religion per se but a philosophy. In reality it’s more like a spiritual way to structure an understanding of life and the universe and existence in general, to my philistinic understanding at the very least. Anyway Jodorowsky studied Buddhism, specifically transcendental meditation. Thus not only is the spirit quest here deeply existential and philosophical more than anything else, but also the mood of the film is so all-encompassing and epic. It seems to take all of the grandeur and scope and frankly, the strangeness of The Lord of the Rings films and squeeze it into a neat two hours. Am I saying that Alejandro Jodorowsky is a better filmmaker than Peter Jackson? Well Jackson couldn’t make The Holy Mountain but Alejandro Jodorowsky couldn’t make Braindead!, that’s all I’m saying. When I say that The Holy Mountain seems all-encompassing, I mean that before the quest even really begins at all we see political protesters get shot but they bleed in all the colors of the rainbow which is just so stunning and dazzling. We see a faux political parade of Pygmy Short Horned Lizards, (who by the way can squirt blood out of their eye to warn off predators although that doesn’t happen in the movie, missed a surrealist trick there Alejandro) around a kind of miniature Mayan temple. We see a man, later to be part of the questing squad, be crucified like Christ, he bleeds stigmata, then he is kidnapped and turned into a plaster cast so that images of Christ can be mass-produced and sold, which he cries over. It is unclear whether he is actually Christ or not. The film does feel like the themes it desperately but directly ties together through its bold and discontinuous images somehow contain the secret to all existence. While on the quest, although it does seem very preachy and condescending at times it isn’t actually by the end I think, the ending happens to be absolutely astounding, by the way. The clan of questers do at points feel like that one really annoying Evangelist Christian you knew at school who just repeated their Mum’s talking points whenever you were talking about feeling Gay, (personal anecdote, I wouldn’t call the film homophobic), but you don’t realize that the film actually has a really conventional arc at the center of it and it’s not actually telling you quite all the stuff you think it is at that point in the drama, y’know, like good storytelling. 

So there’s the really strong spirituality to celebrate in this film, and while I don’t really buy it at all it is fascinating and the world built through the use of surrealism to expressionistically convey the philosophy is endlessly compelling, in no small part due to Jodorowsky’s deeply symbolic visuals. We saw Jodorowsky really develop an inherently cinematic style and sense of atmosphere in El Topo and this film is that idea in its most fully-fledged form. Whereas in his more recent films Jodorowsky takes a much more naturalistic approach to his acting and camerawork, in El Topo and The Holy Mountain we see camera moves that could have been straight out of the classic 70s stylists of the new Hollywood movement in America. The film features Jodorowsky’s best uses of color by far as well, from the dazzling and intricate black and whites of the opening to the famous rainbow splashes that form a motif throughout the film, informing a kaleidoscopic close up of an eye and one of the best shot mechanical sex scenes I have EVER seen in my life. 

Speaking of that mechanical sex scene the film is deeply transgressive. Jodorowsky clearly hadn’t learned from his experience with Fando y Lis and channels his Panic Movement Theatre years to extreme extents here. The march of 100s of corpses through the town is a particular disgust and the sex machine is a particular delight. It’s a wide shot where there’s just a huge metal cube in the middle of a courtyard and a man walks up and masturbates the cube with a giant phallus. That’s actually part of the delight of this movie is that you have no idea whether you are meant to laugh or be disgusted at anything, and all this, all this high strangeness and disgust is in a movie that is utterly charming, intriguing, and beguiling. This is a movie that seriously features a boy having his dick cut off to join the sanctuary of 1000 testicles. They’re all pinned up on a turquoise wall. It’s great. 

It’s hard to really get into the analytics of this movie or to really get too in-depth philosophically within a thousand-word article because it is quite so much, but at the end of the day, it is a film that exists purely so you can walk out of the cinema with a new lease on life. It takes you to the edge of taste, to the edge of sensation, and to the edge of philosophy, and the ending is completely radical and aims to send you out into the world ready to take on life anew and that is pretty much all I can ask for from a movie. All this in a movie of almost exactly two hours, most filmmakers would need any amount of time from three to ten hours to say what this film has to say and to show you what this film has to show you and that is also one of its best delights. The fact is that this is Jodorowsky’s masterpiece. This is his best film, it is the most complete articulation of his vision and it’s just a delirious, visceral, life-affirming experience, which seems to be what Jodorowsky aims to do with everything he makes and that is just endlessly worth having. This is a movie that you need to see to believe, and I hope I’ve convinced you to go see it.

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