The scene is Tocopilla, a small town between desert and sea in 1930s Chile. There the matronly Sara (Pamela Flores) seems so lustrous, so ethereal, so grand to her young son Alejandro (Jeremiah Herskovits), that, many decades later in his adult memory, her every line is sung operatically, as though she occupies an entirely different medium to those around her. She also addresses her son as “my dear father”, in the belief that ‘Alejandrito’ is the reincarnation of her late, golden-tressed papa.
This is not the only confusion of past and present, father and son, in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s highly mannered memoir. The director, famous for cult movies El Topo (1970), The Holy Mountain (1973) and Santa Sangre (1989), appears as an aged spectre (and narrator) in the film, offering his younger self advice and comfort, and at one point even holding himself back from suicide so as to ensure that both his life and his narrative do not come to an abrupt, paradoxical end. Meanwhile the younger Alejandro’s father Jaime is played by Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis, while additional adult roles are filled by Jodorowksy’s other sons Adan (the Anarchist) and Cristobal (the Theosophist). Here the legacy of blood flows in both directions, replicating itself in an infinite dance. While the first half of the film focuses on young Alejandro’s relationship with the macho authoritarian Jaime – a communist who models himself on Stalin – the second half is as much about the father’s own coming of age.
If Alejandro, a Jew born to exiled Russian parents, feels like a stranger in a strange land, Jaime is every bit as conflicted, and like all the protagonists in Jodorowsky’s oeuvre, undergoes a transformative spiritual journey to find his true self – and his family. Initially Jaime berates Alejandro for exhibiting any compassion or ‘cowardice’, but these traits, however well concealed, characterise the nature of Jaime himself. Jaime’s internal struggles will be staged through his ambivalent relationship with the tyrannical President and ‘father’ of Chile, Carlos Ibáñes (Bastián Badenhöfer), whom Jaime cannot decide whether to murder or to serve – and as his abstract odyssey continues, Jaime will not only change names and uniforms several times, but also shift gradually from a moustachioed atheist to a bearded Christ figure. These metamorphoses of the father are as much fictions of the older Jodorowsky’s memory as documentary dramatisations of events that the younger Alejandro himself in fact never witnesses, making this oneiric film an elaborate foundation myth of the director’s own identity, part inherited, part invented. Jaime’s search for himself is also Alejandro’s search for his father, for authority, and for God. Meanwhile Sara solves everything with her ample love and faith, her powers of invisibility and her healing urine.
With its circuses, freaks and cripples, its mendicants, gurus and frauds, The Dance of Reality is inimitably a Jodorowsky joint, mixing the personal and the political, the mundane and the cosmically sublime in a carnivalesque kaleidoscope of human experience. It’s also, perhaps, a little overlong, although accusing Jodorowsky of overindulgence is no more – or less – meaningful than calling your son ‘dad’…