The Dance of Reality (La Danza de la Realidad) (Alejandro Jodorowsky – Chile/France) 130 minutes
Alejandro Jodorowsky unexpectedly returned this year with his first film since his abortive attempt to move into the mainstream with The Rainbow Thief in 1990. Not that the Chilean magus has been idle in that time – he has busied himself with theatre work, comics and his weekly tarot sessions at a Paris café. The new film, The Dance of Reality,is a ‘freely’ autobiographical work, based on his memories of an unhappy childhood in the roughneck Chilean port town of Tocopillo during the Great Depression (which hit Chile as bad as it did the US). Born to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, Jodorowsky was close to neither of his parents – his father Jaime was a brutish Stalinist, while his mother, Sara, never loved him as he was conceived of a rape by Jaime during a rage of jealousy. Or so it was according to the 2005 memoir The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Dance of Reality offers a slightly more sympathetic view of both parents, with Jaime’s authoritarianism offset by bravery in the face of torture by government spooks, while Sara is a good deal more indulgent of her son, doting on him, singing all her dialogue as arias of perpetual urgency.
Jodorowsky shot the film in the actual town of Tocopillo, a gateway to the mining-rich Atacama Desert; you suspect the town, a rusty, wind-swept outpost, hasn’t changed a great deal since his childhood in the 1920s. Despite having a budget of $3 million (admittedly, not much for a period film) it looks cheap in a theatrical kind of way. But that may have been Jodorowsky’s intention, to denude the film of any cinematic patina and to foreground the acts of his characters. The first half focuses mostly on the young Alejandro, who is prey to both his boorish father, determined to toughen him up, and the anti-semitic bullying of his classmates. His first traumatic experience arrives when he gives a new pair of boots to a shoeless child, only for the boy to slip on wet rocks wearing them and drown. This leads to the violent recrimination of his father and his guilt at the boy’s death. Alejandro’s mother, unlike Jaime, urges him to survive in life by ‘making himself invisible’ (surely something that would have been known to many Jews from Eastern Europe); she demonstrates by bringing him to a bar frequented by sailors, stripping naked and going unnoticed by all.
The second part of The Dance of Reality is centred on the father, Jaime, who decides to give thanks for being delivered from the plague by attempting to assassinate populist right-wing president Carlos Ibañez del Campo, taking a job as the president’s stable hand (I suppose I should introduce a spoiler – Ibañez served a second term two decades later). Jaime then drifts in an amnesiac state, from a Santiago slum to a Christian carpenter’s studio before being picked up by agents of the state and tortured. When Ibañez is overthrown, he is rescued and returns to the family.
The Dance of Reality is replete with memorable scenes, such as a troop of plague-stricken peasants crossing the mountain to reach the sea; a group of amputees, straight out of Tod Browning, facing off against Jaime; the surreal appearance of a Chilean Nazi parade (the Chilean Nazis really did exist), and a fire-fighting incident gone awry in a favela. Jodorowsky, as ever, demands a lot of his actors, particularly his son Brontis, who plays his own grandfather. Brontis has electrodes applied to his bare testicles and is pissed on by the buxom Pamela Flores, playing Sara, in an attempt to cure his plague. There is much in this ingenuous, inoffensive film that will offend certain people but it is more its length that sticks in the craw. For all the inventiveness on display and for all the verve of Jodorowsky’s vision, The Dance of Reality goes on a bit too long and never really manages to gel into a cohesive whole, despite its origins in the director’s own experience. Jodorowsky cultists, of which there are many, will lap it up. More casual viewers will find that it drags.