Alejandro Jodorowsky hasn’t visited New York in more than three years, and the mid-March Museum of Modern Art premiere of his new film has become a glorious train wreck. Everyone in the sold-out house seems to love the fabled Chilean director’s cinematic memoir, “The Dance of Reality,” his first new movie in 23 years, but during the post-screening Q&A, few in the audience are even asking about the surreal childhood saga. ¶ Instead, they beseech the 85-year-old filmmaker for advice on their bum leg or their aching heart. They compulsively overshare as if meeting a guru. This isn’t completely out of the blue. Among his many creative endeavors, which have ranged from mime and puppetry to fantastical graphic novels, Jodorowsky is known as a whimsical metaphysician. He often gives free tarot readings at a cafe near his Paris apartment and offers epigrammatic life advice to 952,000 followers on Twitter.
At first, the congenial Jodorowsky plays along, dispensing doses of “psycho-magic,” a self-invented conversational cure that deals with unresolved familial issues as the root of most ailments. Soon, though, he loses patience, and his avuncular good will snaps when yet another fan begins to genuflect in Spanish, his native tongue. “Speak English!” he barks into a microphone, at once angry and bemused. “No one can understand you!”
The moment is startling and funny – also instructive. In his most admired film, the 1973 psychedelic cult favorite “The Holy Mountain,” Jodorowsky portrays an alchemist who leads his followers on a mystical journey, only to drop his pose and reveal at the end that it was all an illusion. They were just making a movie: “Real life awaits us.”
“The Dance of Reality” is clearly a movie, a memory play staged in the director’s birthplace – the Chilean coastal village of Tocopilla, “a place out of the world” — featuring the local population as extras and illuminated by the fearless and tender lyricism of Jodorowsky’s imagery. The act of making it, however, was an old man’s attempt to reclaim a tortured childhood, to reconcile wounded parental relationships by reimagining his real life through the kaleidoscopic prism of cinema.
“I was different, because my father was a Russian Jew,” said Jodorowsky, relaxing in his midtown hotel suite during a promotional tour for the film. “He came to Chile when he was 5 years old, and he forgot from where he came. Myself, I was different, because I was a white person with a nose. They didn’t like me.” As a child of 6 or 7, the outcast Jodorowsky said he jumped from the first-floor window of his family’s home, permanently damaging his knees. “I wanted to die,” he continued, speaking in accented English distinguished by a Castillian lisp. “That’s why I came back, in order to cleanse that. Even though I suffered, when they took me out of this town it was also a big suffering for me, to be out of that hell. I was out, but I was suffering all my life because I love my territory. I remember every house, every street. When I came back there, it was all identical. The town didn’t change, because it stopped in time.”
The film, which shares its nostalgic spirit with works such as Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord,” is drawn from Jodorowsky’s autobiography of the same name (yet to be published in English). Much of the story revolves around the filmmaker’s father, Jaime (played by Brontis Jodorowsky, the director’s middle-aged son), and his efforts to toughen up the bookish, effeminate Alejandro while unsuccessfully rabble-rousing for the communist cause. In one grueling scene, the boy (Jeremias Herskovits) undergoes a dental procedure without anesthesia. Afterward, his father praises him: “Now you’re a Jodorowsky!”
It was true, Jodorowsky said, although in the movie his parents show him the affection that they never did in life. “I wanted to be loved by my father, I could do anything to be loved by my father,” he said. “I don’t remember my mother touching me, and not even my father. They didn’t touch me. How? I didn’t know what it was to be touched. I needed to learn. I think I learned to be happy with caresses at 70 years old. I find a woman I love now and I make a movie with feelings.”
That woman is his third wife, Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, who, while half Jodorowsky’s age, has become the sustaining presence in his life. Like many members of the filmmaker’s family, she worked on “Dance,” designing costumes. The singer-songwriter Adan Jodorowsky, another of his sons, plays a village mystic. Brontis Jodorowsky, who first appeared as a child in his father’s hallucinogenic 1969 Western “El Topo,” had the unusual experience of playing his own grandfather.
“My son was my father, and his father was the son, and he was making believe he was his father — it was better than 10 years of psychoanalysis!” said the elder Jodorowsky, who also appears in the film as his present-day self, acting as a kind of narrator.
“There is a psycho-magical aspect in doing this movie, we are working on our family psyche,” said Brontis, an actor whose mother was a stage performer and whose daughter, Alma Jodorowsky, carries on the tradition, most recently in a small role in “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” “Between action and cut, it was just an actor and a director collaborating with an awareness of trying to make a work of art. Between cut and action, and especially in the evenings, it was a real interesting experience. I could measure the distance he had gone through in his life, as a person spiritually. It was knowing the man in a better way. I could feel that he felt understood by me.”
The father-son relationship was complex from the start. “His paternity test, for Brontis, is framed and hung up in his office, because he was convinced he could not have children,” said Frank Pavich, who visited Jodorowsky in Paris several times while shooting the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” in which the filmmaker shares often outrageous anecdotes about his abortive mission to adapt Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic to the screen. In his return to filmmaking, Jodorowsky aims to redeem his patriarchal line.
“Each one of us carries the figure of the father, in Jung’s point of view, and part of this figure of the father we had in our family was this terrible, unloving man,” said Brontis, in an interview over Skype. “Hard education, cruel, a domestic tyrant. By doing this, we showed how he was, and then we transformed him into someone more human. Sarah, my grandmother, who was a frustrated, dominated woman . . . she wanted to be an opera singer. By making her sing in our movie, the grandmother we carry in ourselves is a realized woman who can express the art she had in her.”
The process appears to have liberated the elder Jodorowsky, who has plans to continue his rejuvenated film career. “It’s so weird to be alive and to be inside a body,” he said. “Life is beautiful, what do you think? In the morning I say, ‘Ah, I am alive still!’ All my friends die already. I am alive. It is fantastic.”
Dollar is a freelance writer.
The Dance of Reality Opening May 30 at Landmark E Street Cinema. Not rated. Contains mature thematic elements. 129 minutes.