The Dance of Reality is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film in almost a quarter century
is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film in almost a quarter century

Before viewing his new film La danza de la realidad (The Dance of Reality, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 30), I didn’t know a great deal about the legendary filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Oh sure, I’d enjoyed his bizarre, over-the-top classics El Topo, Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, but were those films weird for weirdness’ sake or deeply personal statements? Who was this crazy Chilean with the bushy hair, Christ-like beard, and penetrating gaze?

The curtain has at least been slightly parted by the semi-autobiographical The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky’s first film in almost a quarter century. Finally earning a stateside release after premiering to a rapturous reception at Cannes last year, the film stars the director as himself, a living octogenarian ghost stalking the fading memories of his own South American childhood.

Young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) is the child of Communist underwear salesman Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky) and Sara (Chilean opera star Pamela Flores, who sings all her dialogue). Sara believes her son to be the reincarnation of her late father, who died in a vat of self-ignited, flaming alcohol. Such is her obsession that she compels Alejandro to wear a wig woven from the hair of her deceased dad.

This doesn’t please Jaime, who – despite his loyalty to the Party – is the very definition of petit bourgeois. Determined to make a man of his longhaired son, he subjects the lad to a series of tests, most of which verge on physical abuse — including dental work sans anesthetic. When he’s not being mistreated by his father, young Alejandro learns wisdom at the hands of a local mystic (Cristobal Jodorowsky) and gains valuable life experience as the mascot of the town fire department.

Meanwhile, strongman dictator Ibanez (Bastián Bodenhöfer) is threatening to crack down on the country’s social deviants, including Communists, homosexuals and artists. A meeting of local Party members results in Jaime being assigned the task of assassinating Ibanez, but the mission goes badly awry and instead he finds himself hired as the President’s personal groom.

If you’re familiar with Jodorowsky’s work you won’t be surprised by The Dance of Reality‘s heady blend of Bunuelian surrealism, Fellini-esque physical grotesquery and that special something extra supplied by the director. It’s here in spades (witness an army of limbless military veterans and a midget whipping an inflatable dollar sign), but there’s also a deeply personal element as well, with appearances by Jodorowsky’s ‘ghost’ underscoring the surprisingly sentimental and nostalgic tone of the film.

Despite clocking in at well over two hours, The Dance of Reality flies by. There’s unforgettable imagery here, some of it shocking (including a torture scene which will be challenging for many), some of it beautiful, and some of it both. There’s far more than can adequately be described in a 500 word review, but the bottom line is that Jodorowsky – now in his mid 80s — is still at the top of his game. Should this prove to be his cinematic epitaph, it’s quite a way to go out.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...