It's a new movie by Alejandro Jodorowsky, of the classic midnight movies The Holy Mountain and El Topo, neither of which, I confess to my shame, I have seen. Honestly, all you hear about them is that they're super-kooky midnight movies and that they're wildly surreal, so I thought I could put them off. Now that I've seen this--his first film in 23 years, by the way--they are both solidly on my list. And if they both have this much rich, serious emotional content then I have done them a serious disservice for thinking them empty wackiness-fests.
The movie opens with the director himself saying that money informs everything. We then join himself as a young girly boy with long blond hair, which drives his father, a very severe, macho guy with slicked-back hair and a mustache, insane. His mother has enormous breasts and delivers all of her lines in an operatic soprano. This is all happening in 1929 Chile. So you have this outrageously Freudian setup for a misunderstood boy drama--boy derided for not being manly enough, outrageously, somewhat psychotically-macho father, welcoming mother who adores and provides understanding for him [and the Freudian "maternal breast" is made very real here]. It's impossible to really describe the movie in detail, so I'll just give some vignettes: Young Alejandro wants a special pair of red shoes. His father relents and gives them to him. He gives them to a poor shoeshine boy. The father is furious, and tells him to get them back. However, the boy has died--slipped on the rocks, because of the new shoes--and they are put forever in a shrine to the boy, where Alejandro can never get them back. So that kind of illustrates the fable-like nature of the little stories intertwined here, as well as the overarching sense of cosmic humor and irony.
The first half is almost entirely devoted to Alejandro's relationship with his father, and his attempt to deal with his father's craziness and also win his approval and love. His father slaps him repeatedly, saying that if he doesn't cry out, but asks for further punishment, only then can his father believe that he is a man. His father slaps him until he breaks a tooth. They go to the dentist, and the father tells him that if he gets drilled without anaesthetic, and without crying out, only then will he deserve his father's love. So it's this hyperbolically-overblown parody of scenes sensitive and/or queer boys go through with their macho dads [there's also a thread of everyone in town believing the young boy is gay], but they do refer to reality and they do pack a very real emotional punch. I'll give you another little series of events: The dad is part of the local communist group, who all wear matching uniforms. Their mascot, a DOG, has died, and dad tells young Alejandro that he is to be their new mascot. He refuses, but eventually gives in and wears his uniform to march in front of dad's group at a funeral procession. He soon faints, and his father is mortified that his son is being such a sissy in front of his friends. So all of this is very exaggerated, but if you're a boy who has grown up with the feeling that you are a disappointment to your father, it is incredibly emotionally powerful. The tears of embarassment that the father cries as he carries his son out, making excuses to his friends... at times this movie is almost too emotionally intense.
But it can also make sudden turns into lyrical beauty. At a certain point, after Alejandro is again mocked for being Jewish [another huge thread of the film], he is about to kill himself when suddenly the adult Alejandro [again, the director of the film] appears and stops him. He holds him and moves his arms around in a lyrical dance, and it is just heartbreakingly beautiful and moving.
Not to be ignored is Alejandro's mother, who certainly holds her own with dad. Her delivering all her lines as opera is a wonderful metaphor for the mother prone to huge emotional scenes, but she's no bimbo or pushover, she is a powerful, formidable woman--also making the operatic heroine metaphor apt--and she has two incredible arias. Continuing the queer content of this film, at a certain point Alejandro tells her that he is miserable in life, because he has a shadow over him, and she takes out shoe polish and paints him black, telling him not to fight it, but that he is part of the shadows, and part of the night. They then get naked and dance together. So he finds a lot of acceptance with her [minus one notable rejection near the beginning] and she embodies the warm, accepting mother.
The second half puts the focus on the father, who embarks on a mission to assassinate the president, leading to a long odyssey that will result in a harsh emotional comedown for him, also laced with many deepy humorous and ironic reversals--as well as heartbreakingly emotional sections. It's a bit of a surprise when young Alejandro drops out entirely, and the political content starts to come forward [making me wish I had done a two-minute brush-up on Chilean history], but near the end, the whole thing starts to take shape: political leaders are like fathers, and sometimes they're dictators, like tyrannical fathers, and in the second half, the father has to deal with the implacable force that are his political leaders, just as Alejandro had to deal with him as a boy.
So you know how Rothko intended his paintings to bypass the intellectual and just evoke an intuitive, gut-level emotional response? I think that's the way to view this film; it is wildly unrealistic and exaggerated, but in service of showing an emotional realism. It follows the logic of a dream, so the specifics of plot are impossible to follow [and also not the point], and the emotional and metaphorical arcs are the real content. It also occurred to me during this film that its being impossible to understand is an important part of WHY it works: you just have to give up trying to make sense of it on an intellectual level at a certain point, which forces you to just let it wash over you emotionally. Which is the best way to watch it.
Let me also add that this is far and away the best film I have seen thus far this year. There's a great deal more to it than I could ever hope to capture here, and in terms of pure filmmaking skill and beauty [you'll see gorgeous sights and incredibly intense colors and compositions], as well as the numerous layers of the content--humor, irony, incredibly intense emotion--it's just got about ten times as much going on in one average minute than most whole films I've seen lately. It's also one of the best gay films--without that being the main theme of the film--that I've ever seen. I say go, but you know you, you just do what you want.