Surrealistic world of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain”

Introductory Ode to an overlooked director

The films that Alejandro Jodorowsky has made until now undoubtedly boast of a distinct style. Such a style is exclusively characteristic of the director himself. In my opinion, there are seldom cinematic experiences that can be acknowledged as authentic as when watching Jodorowsky’s work(El Topo or The Holy Mountain, for instance). This aspect of his films largely overcomes the quantitative aspect of his cinematography. In the few films that he has made, Jodorowsky has not held back from impressing himself upon the minds of his viewers. His movies are memorable, but can often come off as a difficult watch for many. They are loaded richly with elements of terror, fear, agony, violence, love, and joy. What appears to us as commonplace polarities, dissolve like solutes in his solvent-like movies.

The wanderers on their quest to the holy mountain
The wanderers on their quest to the holy mountain

Without stretching my endless admiration any further, I would like to move on to analyze a personal favorite. The film chosen for interpretation is The Holy Mountain. For anyone who has lived through the same enchanting experience of the film as I have, the enriching symbolic aspect of the same has not been alien. My attempt here, although being interpretative, would in no way dismiss other possible understandings of the movie. This interpretation upholds no absolute truth, just like Jodorowsky’s movies.

Jodorowsky’s symbolic avant-garde style in The Holy Mountain

If The Holy Mountain is to be summarized in a word, it is an “experience” -one that invites free play of the opposites of human consciousness. The movie establishes a ritualistic ambiance as it starts off, complete with ambient music and seemingly Tibetan throat singing. A man(the Alchemist) is then seen to proceed to shave the heads of two women. This scene may come off as shockingly absurd for many. Perhaps this scene is symbolic of the sacrifice of that which is most commonly associated with feminine beauty -the hair.

The Alchemist holding the two women after he had shaven their heads in The Holy Mountain
The Alchemist holding the two women after he had shaven their heads

This scene acts as a prelude to the act of questioning of what is beautiful and what is ugly throughout this movie .

The setting of the movie itself is strikingly vibrant. Elements often appear in a surrealistic contrast in such ways that they do not seem commonplace. A viewer feels bombarded from one strange imagery to the next. Such imageries are easily recognizable as Jodorowsky’s own. For instance, the Alchemist’s tower in this one, or the presence of deformed, often amputee dwarves in most of his movies.

The Alchemist in conversation with the thief in The Holy Mountain
The strikingly vibrant setting of The Holy Mountain and it’s surrealistic imagery

In this movie, the dwarf appeared with a tarot card of the five swords attached to his back. Harassment and isolation, symbolic of this card, manifest through this amputee dwarf. The scene, too, like this symbolic card, depicts an atmosphere of defeat. The thief was lying drunk and dirty with flies buzzing all over his face. Separation, also significant of this card, arrives later in the movie on the part of the dwarf.

The dwarf  appeared with the tarot card of five swords attached to his back in The Holy Mountain
The dwarf appeared with the tarot card of five swords attached to his back

Christian symbolism in The Holy Mountain

The thief resembled Christ. Children came running and picked a flower out of his stigmata. Now occurred a symbolic act of deflower-ation -a loss of innocence- on the part of the thief.

He was then hung up on a cross and stoned, akin to Christ stealing the name of God. However, he freed himself and threatened the children away. He was not the meek Jesus reincarnated. Despite sharing some resemblance with the son of God, he was not the King of Jews. As, for instance, he also got stoned by sharing a smoke with the dwarf – defiance of piety.

Christian motifs recur frequently, especially on the part of the thief. The thief shares a great resemblance with the King of Jews. For instance, his arrival at a war-torn town square is comparable to that of Christ’s visit to the temple at Jerusalem.

Also, the flayed creatures upon the cross that the thief saw some soldiers carrying signified the worship of Catholics of a tortured and bleeding victim.

Soldiers carrying flayed creatures upon the cross in The Holy Mountain
Soldiers carrying flayed creatures upon the cross

This scene serves as a criticism of the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. The Holy Book infested with worms shown in a scene soon after serves as another.

Moreover, the thief‘s bearing of the cross, his forced replication as an idol of Christ by obese Roman-like soldiers, and his muted scream opposing this idolatry while being surrounded by countless idols of Christ -all strengthen the Christian symbolism in the movie.

The thief's scream while being surrounded by countless idols of Christ in The Holy Mountain
The thief‘s scream while being surrounded by countless idols of Christ

Dissolving polarities

Although involving all obscenity and blasphemy imaginable, this movie does not become, for that matter, merely an anti-religious movie. So are there various motifs of sensibility, joy, and reflections of various beliefs. They, too, do not, however, make the movie fall under a certain category.

At the town square, amidst the shootings and riots, joy and thrill situate themselves through the excitement of onlookers witnessing these. Seemingly tourists, these onlookers laughed and photographed the corpses stained with everything imaginable, except blood.

Tourists photographing the corpses in the town square in The Holy Mountain
Tourists photographing the corpses in the town square

Heightened sexuality also constitutes this scene as a soldier went on to copulate with one of the female tourists amidst all the chaos. The scene, thus, appears as a complete jumble of different emotions. The play of opposites recurs frequently in Jodorowsky’s movies. A grotesque moment may take over a moment of eroticism. Vice versa, despised excrement was converted into gold that is valuably precious. It appears that Jodorowsky, by accumulating such opposites, aims to blow up the established world of meanings. The avant-garde approach and the magic realism only enhance this juxtaposition.

The conquest of Mexico

Further on in the movie, an enactment of the conquest of Mexico played out, with geckos as natives and toads as colonizers. Here, the enactment of a historical event takes place in truly animal terms, with the utilization of the hatred of one species of the creature towards another. Their behavior gains assertion of human meaning through this enactment.

A gecko adorned as native Mexican
A gecko adorned as native Mexican

The director, through this scene, situates the animalistic survival instinct in the emotional battleground of humans -in a way distorting the differentiation of humans from animals.

Such emotions occur throughout history in the various narratives of and about colonization. In this enactment, these emotions only appear in their rawest forms. This form is the underlying base beneath a flux of emotions through ages of colonial suppression and native rebellion. There is no illusion of emotions here, but only a motive of survival.

The blood that appears at the end of this scene symbolizes bloodshed, which is the only constant throughout ages of war motivated by emotions.

On spirit

There is a major emphasis on spirit -and of that which is related to it. If anything, the movie is a commentary on how the urge to climb up the social ladder through the accumulation of more than what we need, alienates us from exercising our spirit freely. Passion excluding adventure and adventure excluding free passion -both are negated. Both reduce one’s capability to know oneself or anyone else. The pressure on adherence to “good” or “evil” is so immense that one emerges knowing nothing. Where spirits become bound, knowledge cannot flow freely.

The Alchemist, in choosing industrialists, wanted them to engage with human duality in a freer way than they did. These chosen industrialists either led double lives, accumulated excessively, or exploited the corruption of human minds by eroding them further.

Appearances are deceptive…

For instance, Fon, whose planet was Venus, dealt with excessive beautification. He fed that illusion of the human mind which identifies only bodily modifications with “transformation” and “transcendence”.

…people want to be loved, not for what they are, but what they appear to be”

The aspect of appearance validates the work of all of the chosen industrialists. Immensely vast, this aspect precedes an individual’s life. It forms the social objectivity which the individual is a subject and victim to. Manipulated in the hands of politicians, industrialists, and the government itself, it exists even after an individual ceases to exist. It also continues to be morphed accordingly. The eradication of adventurous exploration and gradual realization takes place in the individual through adherence to immediate appearance.

The parasitic squid which the tattooed assistant of the Alchemist took out from the thief‘s paralyzed body, was symbolic of the corruption of appearance fed to one by society.

These industrialists, however, separated themselves by cashing on the perpetuation of such an appearance. Isla‘s religious weapons, for instance, aimed to exploit the appearance of religious ideals among orthodox believers and also the hatred that prevails among different religious communities. Her weapons appeared as camouflaging with religious caricatures such as Buddhist statues, Jewish candlesticks, and Christian crosses -a symbolic juxtaposition of war and peace, faith and distrust.

Isla's Buddhist gun
Isla‘s Buddhist gun

Passion without adventure…

Fon‘s solution of immediate transformation was a perpetuation of such an appearance instead of its negation. This was that appearance of beauty that defines one’s acceptability in society. The immediate solution negated a gradual realization of the variants of beauty gained through adventures in life. In his factory, this appearance soared at unnatural heights, such as through the modification of and the illusion of life in cadavers. Fon operated it, with the backing of his father who consulted his dead mother’s corpse.

Fon's father consulting the moisturization of his mother's corpse
Fon‘s father consulting the eja******** of his mother’s corpse

Love was not absent from Fon‘s factory. His father’s prioritization of the eja******* of his mother’s corpse may explain that. Venus is herself significant of love. Also, Fon‘s own name is significant of the carnal satyrs of old legends -fawns. Moreover, female workers got love-making as a promotion. However, here, love existed without adventure. The seemingly dull lives of the factory workers identified only the act of sex as love. This, in turn, was served as a “job promotion”. Reproduction ensured the perpetuation of the line of hereditary workers. Here, then, love was propagated as a business. The inverted symbol of Venus appearing on the flag at the beginning of this scene also indicated this.

The inverted symbol of Venus in Fon's factory
The inverted symbol of Venus in Fon‘s factory

Adventure without free passion…

If Fon‘s case was that of regulation of passions, Axon‘s was a bit different. Axon‘s case did not negate the exercising of passion. The tough outdoor physical recreation surpassed Fon‘s factory’s caged conditions. As police forces, Axon and his troops did not lack adventures. However, Axon‘s case was a constraint to the free flow of this passion amongst his soldiers. Axon existed as a divine figure, with his own holy book and ritual sacrifice made by his followers of their genitals. His troops could not exercise their thoughts and strength freely through this blinding commitment to him.

Similar was the conditioning at Sel‘s factory of the comparatively stronger spirits of younger children to fight “hyper-sexed brown native vampires“. “From fifteen years in advance“, the fortification of their spirits took place through simulated adventure games, for political causes not consciously chosen by themselves.

Political conspiracies, religious beliefs, and various other values are passed off as necessities. Through their propagation and appearance, they seek the adherence of individual selves. “The Master seeks for the disciple” becomes a double-edged sword. Spirit and passions are trodden upon, subjugating their free flow.

 "From fifteen years in advance", the fortification of their spirits took place through simulated adventure games,...
From fifteen years in advance“, the fortification of their spirits took place through simulated adventure games…
...for political causes not consciously chosen by themselves
…for political causes not consciously chosen by themselves

The quest for the holy mountain

"In old traditions they speak of holy mountains..."
“In old traditions they speak of holy mountains…”

The industrialists agreed to the Alchemist‘s plan of embarking on a quest to the holy mountain upon the latter’s temptation of them with immortality.

"......we must cease to be individuals, and become a collective being."

……we must cease to be individuals, and become a collective being.”

The loss of individuality now occurred on the basis of a mutual desire towards one goal, in contrast to prior situations of conditioned adherence to appearance. A sacrifice of social(through the burning of money) and individual(through burning effigies) self took place in exchange for a life of wanderers.

Sacrifice of individual self through burning of effigies
Sacrifice of individual self through burning of effigies

As wanderers, the Alchemist introduced the industrialists along with the thief, to the immense vastness of unfamiliar nature. This quest differed from the prior lives of these wanderers in the sense that the goal was not one of immediate appearance anymore. All of them dived into the unknown, even if for the sake of selfishly perpetuating familiar appearances.

Dissolution of polarities on the quest

His feet stink like a rotten dog

He has beautiful teeth

A human being is a collective of both preferable and non-preferable aspects. The Alchemist listed out the virtue of the physician to Lut in order to outweigh his vice.

"When he puts your bones back together, you will like his smell."

When he puts all your bones back together, you will like his smell.”

Violence was incorporated so that Lut did not defer from what he truly wanted -to reach the holy mountain. This, as the Alchemist earlier in the film noted, could not be achieved by one on their own. Violence becomes a means to instigate love and of restoring unity.

The disorientation of polarities continue.

The theme of indoors in The Holy Mountain

There are recurrent themes of indoors and outdoors throughout the film. The industrialists perpetuated an “indoors” existence, confined and bound to specific norms and systems of values.

Fon‘s, Isla‘s and Sel‘s factories serve as notable examples. Also, Lut, through his architectural skills, confined human shelter to a space only fit for resting. This led to the oppression of values and recreation that one can associate with one’s shelter apart from just the necessity of rest -through an idea of space only suited for immediate necessity. This, in turn, was a nod of confirmation to the larger aspect of appearance which ensures the functionality of human beings throughout their lives, leaving one less capable of functioning for what one truly desires.

Apart from the literal meaning of the term, there exist other significant forms of the same. For instance, Axon‘s troop of soldiers functioned in a confined interior system. Despite their adventures outdoors as a police force, they could not reason out Axon‘s system for themselves. The primacy of only physical strength and aggression had muted them in other ways.

The theme of outdoors in The Holy Mountain

The turn towards a wanderer’s life introduced the theme of “outdoors”. “Outdoors” is of nature. One cannot go far by neglecting it. Even the raw product of industries come from natural resources. The now too-familiar world of cities emerges only through the reduction and manipulation of unfamiliar nature.

Man learned to cultivate the earth by weakening the plants…

From the journey’s start, the Alchemist stressed on the importance of nature.

….wild plants remained as they were during the time of creation. They are the humble guardians of the secret.

Nature is the larger aspect of which we humans and our appearances are only a part

You are not alone. You have a grave. It is your first mother.

"You have a grave. It is your first mother."

The submission to nature is significant of faith greater than that in one’s constructed appearances. Intimacy with nature makes us acknowledge the harmony that is apparent through our connection with nature. Apart from getting a grip over ourselves, such a harmony ensures that we abandon the desire to control everything.

Rub your cli***** against the mountain. Give yourself to the world…

Stressing upon the loss of self

The notable of the many losses of the wanderers was perhaps the loss of self. Once the dog had taken their senses away, the wanderers could pay attention to the smallest of details through the animal. In their trance, they became the objects they observed themselves, much like Aldous Huxley‘s depiction of his experience upon the intake of mescaline in The Doors of Perception. Individual concerns and appearances seemed trivial. The scene showing the sinking of the self in a bucket of water is a remarkable one. Not only one left oneself out while counting their numbers, but one also perceived one’s own reflection to be of the one that drowned.

The industrialists initially started off with selfish motives. It was only through their (outdoor) quest that they finally abandoned these. They undertook the quest to acquire immortality for individual causes. However, the desire for the acquisition of immortality made them come together. The core selfish motive ultimately made them function together as a unit.

Highlighting the major difference

However, this loss of self differed from the curbing of individuality in factories, the army, or other places of work. In those places, the willingness to work for production was mostly non-existent. Even if it existed, it did so half-heartedly. Often, it was an imposition in the face of seeming unavailability of any other alternatives. Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain serves as a commentary on an appropriate loss of individuality which is not absolute and does not seek to demean the individual. An individual must work upon oneself, but must also possess the understanding and capability to become fluid and lose the notion of self when it is for a cause that is not obtainable by one, alone.

 The industrialists initially started off with selfish motives.
The industrialists initially started off with selfish motives
 It was only through their quest that they finally abandoned these
It was only through their quest that they finally abandoned these

The vision of death

Visions of death haunted the wanderers as they progressed towards the summit. These visions showed each of them the possible consequences that may result from the excess of their respective desires. Through the construction of these visions, Jodorowsky again brings in his surrealistic tools. These visions deliver a shocking impact that cannot be forgotten easily.

Visions of death
Visions of death

Each of these visions takes the deepest desires of the respective wanderer and distorts them in ways unimaginably grotesque. However, it would not do justice to delve into a deep analysis of each of these. These visions, in my opinion, are to be appreciated(or condemned) visually. Jodorowsky, through these scenes, delivers a commentary against the excesses of desires(Maara), akin to Buddhist philosophy.

Visions of death
Visions of death

“The Holy Mountain” -a summit seldom reached

"We have mastered the difficult part of the mountain"

Reaching the summit made the wanderers realize that there were no immortals in the first place. Even if there were, these immortals had lost all organic properties -highlighted by the presence of dummies. The wanderers now occupied the table of these immortals. Whatever be the outcome of the quest, it was this quest that impressed itself upon everyone’s minds. Thus, this absence of immortals did not bother the wanderers. The quest had transformed them.

The unexpected breakdown of the wall separating viewers from the film at the end of The Holy Mountain is perhaps the most daring juxtaposition of opposites. The journey full of surrealism and magic-realism comes to an end through the zooming out of the camera, revealing the actual film set itself along with the crew.

"It is a film. Zoom back camera." in The Holy Mountain
It is a film. Zoom back camera.

This is the Director’s message for the audience, asking them to treat the film beyond a casual watch. There is an ample amount of symbolism in the movie which conveys to the viewer of more elements than what is just visible on the surface. An appeal to turn towards reality, in the end, asks for the same -to analyze surrounding reality based on perceptions other than those already made available to us. It is upon us to find solutions for ourselves in this ever-suppressing world curtailing creativity, recreation, and possibilities of criticism. That would be the actual conquest of “the holy mountain”.

Further Reading:

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