Sunday 30 August 2015

The Dance of Reality is Alejandro Jodorowsky's first film for 23 years and is more than worth the wait

The Dance of Reality
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring: Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Jeremias Herskovits
Running time: 133mins

To give you a flavour of Chilean director Jodorowsky’s first film since 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, here are some of the highlights of the first few minutes: Alejandro (Herskovits), a young boy in a long blond wig that makes him look like a miniature member of The Sweet, accompanies his father, Jaime, to the circus where he used to perform. They are approached by two colourful clowns – one so camp he makes Melvyn Hayes look like Wladimir Klitschko – who challenge Jaime to spar with them. Scared for his father’s safety but scolded by the older man for being a coward, tearful Alejandro runs home to the underwear store owned by his parents. Outside, a dwarf dressed as a devil tries to drum up business for the shop, while Alejandro’s mother, Sara (Flores), a distractingly voluptuous woman who communicates by singing operatically, calls out to him. “Alejandrito, why are you running like that, father dear?” she trills, believing the boy to be the reincarnation of her long-dead dad.

Yes, it’s peculiar, challenging and utterly bonkers but the above offers the merest taste of the many wonders to come in Jodorowsky’s autobiographical film set in Tocopilla, the small Chilean coastal town where the 86-year-old endured a difficult childhood. The Dance of Reality is full of surreal imagery, absurdist digressions, playful humour and several genuinely shocking moments (a golden shower, the killing of a donkey and genital torture, if you’re wondering), but at its core is really the story of Jodorowsky’s fraught relationship with his dad (here played by Brontis, the director’s real-life son). In many respects, Jaime is the centre of the film – it’s his journey we follow most keenly and his character that has the clearest arc. 

A domestic tyrant, it is little wonder Jaime sports a Stalin moustache and has hung an imposing portrait of the Russian dictator on the wall of his knicker shop (I can imagine no better accompaniment to the purchase of pants than Uncle Joe’s grim visage glaring down at you). When he isn’t bullying young Alejandro for his perceived cowardice and weakness, or suffering anti-semitic abuse from the numerous locals with whom he has beef, Jaime spends his time fulminating against Chilean president Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (Bastian Bodenhofer). In order to help the downtrodden poor, Jaime leaves home to assassinate the ruler, inveigling his self into Ibáñez’s affections after saving him from another would-be killer. He takes over as groom for Ibáñez’s magnificent stallion Bucephalus whilst plotting to kill the man. His inability to do so leads to a finale in which, thanks to Sara (fully clothed for once), Jaime gains uncomfortable but ultimately redemptive self knowledge.  

The Dance of Reality received a standing ovation at Cannes when it was shown there in 2013 and Jodorowsky (El Topo, Santa Sangre) has since started work on another autobiographical film, Endless Poetry, part-financed via Kickstarter. He even pops up here bedecked in a gleaming white suit as young Alejandro’s guardian angel/spirit guide, imparting knowledge and exposition like a ghostly Colonel Sanders. So that’s the real-life Jodorowsky interacting with a fictional version of his younger self, while his real-life son plays his dad. Head-spinning.

Anyone who has seen Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (the story of a young boy coming of age in fascist Italy), or the same director’s , will immediately recognise the Italian master’s influence at work here. Nazis, clowns, amputees, dogs in fancy dress, scary skull people, a silver-faced man on the beach; at times it’s like watching a Felliniesque carnival parade of the weird and bizarre. But Jodorowsky – a master storyteller with a long list of credits in comic-books, poetry, novels and stage plays as well as movies – brings a modern sensibility to his tale, injecting pace and structure to counter the dream-like, nostalgia-tinged hyper-reality on display elsewhere. I'm not sure anyone makes films like this any more and when certain directors do dip their toes into symbol-heavy, magical-realist waters - as David Gordon Green did recently with Manglehorn - it just ends up looking clumsy and cack-handed. 

Generally, I prefer my films a little less obtuse but, for all its tonal and visual mischief, The Dance of Reality is thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny, ambitious and, ultimately, hugely enjoyable. Its strange magic stayed with me for days, bleeding into other movies I saw and rendering even the very good ones somewhat ordinary and under-cooked by comparison. I mean, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is truly wonderful but where’s the dog dressed as a kangaroo?

Rating: WWWW 

The Dance of Reality is in cinemas now (key cities) and also available via Curzon Home Cinema's View on Demand service


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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