La Danza de la Realidad (English title: The Dance of Reality) marks Alejandro Jodorowsky’s return to feature-film directing after a long hiatus. Twenty-three years passed between the release of his last cinematic effort, The Rainbow Thief (1990), and this film. Dance of Reality premiered at Cannes in 2013 and will soon be released in the United States on DVD and VOD (see below for details). This film was not the only Jodorowsky-related selection at Cannes; the premiere of Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich’s documentary about “the greatest science fiction movie never made,” created a virtual Jodorowsky double billing at the film festival.
Also written by Jodorowsky, Dance of Reality is a surrealistic, semi-autobiographical tale based on his painful childhood in Tocopilla, Chile, a seaside town on the edge of the Atacama Desert, where he lived with his parents (and sister, whose character does not appear in the film) until he was nine years old. I was able to see this film last week during its Vancouver premiere (at the Cinematheque), which happened to coincide with my visit to the city. At that point, I had only heard of Jodorowsky and his work and so needed to do some research before and after seeing the movie.
In the context of the world of this film, it is interesting that Tocopilla means “the Devil’s corner” in Spanish. It is a place of many torments for young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits). At home, he is abused by his overly-macho father, Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky), who idolizes Stalin, and smothered by his histrionic mother, Sara (Pamela Flores), who sings all of her lines in operatic style. Among his peers, Alejandro is bullied because he is from a family of Jewish immigrants. The environment outside the family home is marked by poverty, suffering, death, capitalistic exploitation, political fascism, Roman Catholic religiosity, and spiritual, economic, and sexual rebellion. The ordinary citizens of Tocopilla have been rendered faceless, as the masks they wear symbolize.
All of this is filtered through a prism of surrealism and absurdism, in Jodorowsky’s signature style. The film opens with young Alejandro appearing almost like a girl due to his long blonde hair. His mother has encouraged him to wear his hair long so that he will resemble her own father because she believes Alejandro is his reincarnation. Meanwhile, Jaime is preoccupied with fears about his son’s manliness. In addition to forcing Alejandro to have his hair cut at the local barber shop (where the barber discovers that Alejandro is wearing a wig), he makes him endure physical pain so that he will become tougher and more manly. However, it is Jaime’s own identity as a man that is the real issue for him, one that explains his homophobia. He has bolstered his fragile self-image as a man by adopting a Stalinist ideology and lifestyle (while at the same time running a retail store, Casa Ukrania, that sells women’s shoes and hosiery). He dominates his wife socially and sexually, but this is not enough to reassure himself about his virility and potency. To compensate further, he visits local prostitutes, who are also his comrades in the local Communist Party, which is ironically dominated by LGBT members.
Young Alejandro appears with the Alejandro of the present (played by Jodorowsky himself) intermittently throughout the film. The older Alejandro speaks words of wisdom to his younger self in a soothing, avuncular tone. Perhaps this is an indication that Jodorowsky had to act as his own father when he was a child. More likely, it is related to a major existential theme that runs through Jodorowsky’s work (in film as well as other media). Here it is telegraphed by the title “Dance of Reality” and made overt in the opening voice-over of the adult Alejandro speaking to his younger self: “You and I have only been memories. Never reality. Something is dreaming us. Give yourself to the illusion. Live!”
In Zen-like fashion, death provides the contrast that accentuates the living to which Alejandro’s older self urges him. When the dog that serves as the local fire brigade’s mascot dies, Jaime replaces it with Alejandro, to whom he gives a child-sized fireman’s uniform. Not realizing that this is only a ceremonial position, Alejandro accompanies the brigade on its next call. The firemen put out a blaze in the slums by destroying the shanty that is on fire. In the process, a fire captain is killed. During the subsequent funeral march, Alejandro passes out when the star on his uniform appears to crawl up his shirt and onto his face. Jaime is humiliated by this event, which he sees as evidence of his son’s weakness, and is completely mortified when the other members of the fire brigade tease him about it. Desperate to restore his honor, he vows to go to Santiago to assassinate Ibanez, the dictatorial ruler of Chile.
At this point, the story-line divides. The story of Jaime’s quest dominates. Although he begins as an assassin, he experiences a strange attraction to Ibanez, ultimately becoming the groom for his prize horse after saving the dictator from another would-be assassin. When he eventually musters the courage to shoot Ibanez, he experiences hysterical paralysis. He winds up a prisoner of the state and experiences gruesome torture. Rescued by revolutionaries, he returns home to his wife and son as a crippled and broken man. Throughout the telling of this tale, which is more complex than can be related here, scenes of Alejandro’s life at home, alone with his mother (an Oedipal victory that is underscored by a scene in which Sara and Alejandro paint each other’s bodies with black shoe polish), are interspersed.
As the dynamics of the family have changed in Jaime’s absence, the stage is set for healing and redemption (albeit through highly unconventional means) upon his return. Ultimately, the family decides to leave Tocopilla, sailing away on a boat piloted by a skeleton (as if they are crossing the river Styx). Figures representing the life that they are leaving watch their departure from the pier (as depicted in the movie poster above). As the old Alejandro is also on board, standing close to the skeleton, perhaps this final scene is a statement of the filmmaker’s acceptance of his past experience and of death’s role in life. One hopes that it is not his swan song as well.
Those who are well acquainted with Jodorowsky’s filmography will note many familiar tropes and themes. His interest in the deformed and crippled, his critique of traditional religion, his preoccupation with Buddhism and mystical spirituality, his frank depictions of sexuality, violence, and death — all of these and more are on display in this film. The cinematography (by Jean-Marie Dreujou) is lush and vivid, as can be seen in the stills above. The musical score is eclectic, including original compositions by Adan Jodorowsky as well as such Jodorowsky favorites as the sounds of the Tibetan dungchen .
I highly recommend seeing Dance of Reality, which will soon be available for home viewing. On August 25, ABKCO Films, Jodorowsky’s U.S. distributor, will release it on DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes. Unconvinced? Check out the trailer: