After an absence of more than two decades, 85-year-old auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky is back and as bizarre as ever. On the heels of a documentary about the director’s visionary adaptation of “Dune” that never got made comes “The Dance of Reality,” a movie that confounds categorization. It’s a surreal autobiography that blends fantastical characters, Chilean politics, religious insights and the painful reality of adolescence. You might call it a coming-of-age epic fairy tale nightmare. But in the hands of Jodorowsky, it all somehow works.
The writer-director narrates the story of his childhood and pops up now and again to hang around the child version of himself (played by Jeremias Herskovits). Jodorowsky is a calming presence in a swirl of fantasy, as if he’s trying to assure the younger Alejandro that despite all of the chaos, everything is going to turn out okay.
In the meantime, though, life at home is not exactly normal. Alejandro’s father, Jaime (played by the director’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky), is a cold and oppressive communist with a Stalinesque mustache who rules his family with an iron fist and berates his young son at the slightest inkling of weakness. He revels in telling Alejandro that God doesn’t exist. “You die and you rot,” Jaime repeats over and over. Alejandro’s mother, Sara (Pamela Flores), sings all of her dialogue as if she were cast in an opera and accidentally wandered onto the wrong set. Among other peculiarities, she has unusual home remedies, from urinating on her husband when he becomes gravely ill to covering her son in shoe polish before she strips off her clothes and dances with him to cure his fear of the dark.
She’s hardly the most eccentric character, however. There’s also a theological philosopher who is covered in the painted symbols of the chakras, or Hindu energy centers, and lives on the beach; an old carpenter who speaks in psalms; an armless man wearing army fatigues who hangs out with other camo-clad men, all of whom are missing limbs; and a slew of extras who meander in and out of scenes wearing masks.
Jodorowsky studied mime and worked with avant-garde performance artists before he became a cult cinema hero with such movies as “El Topo” from 1970, and those influences are clear in his filmmaking. But for all the spectacular weirdness, Jodorowsky manages to generate real emotion, especially as Jaime transforms into a softer, more open father and husband.
As with Jodorowsky’s other movies, “The Dance of Reality” will probably appeal to a niche audience due to the film’s occasionally inscrutable storytelling and its strange and grotesque images. But the filmmaker’s novel approach to memoir deserves a wider audience. Maybe everything has been done before, but never quite like this.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains graphic nudity, language and violence, including torture and images of charred human remains. In Spanish with subtitles. 129 minutes.