At the heart of El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky's famously mystical and mystifying sort-of-western, is the recurring image of things buried only to be uncovered. As the opening narration explains, el topo (the mole) is an animal that spends its whole life digging tunnels, looking for a sun that will ultimately leave it blinded. This has often been read as a metaphor for the increasing popularity of underground movies, but more simply, it is a version of that most universal symbol of truth - the sun - that takes away one's sight just as it imbues the seer with a deeper inner vision. There are versions of this story in most, if not all mythologies, and Jodorowsky reduces it to a stark fable of the omnipresent light and the unworthy animal. El Topo is the story of one man's gory, kinky journey to enlightenment; it's both profound and profoundly silly, and whole lot of fun.
El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) is a black-clad gunslinger riding across the desert with his young, naked son (Jodorowsky's son, Brontis). During the course of the film, he rescues a woman from a cult, duels with the four master gunmen of the desert, and is betrayed only to be reborn twenty years later as the savior of a colony of deformed and otherwise disabled cave-dwellers, marry a little person and lead the colony to civilization, which ends in bloodshed and a violent epiphany (this is the most fun I've ever had writing plot summary). If this sounds like a hodgepodge of self-consciously odd ideas, El Topo is much more than weird for weird's sake; the ideas and images in the film unfold suddenly and inevitably, as though in a dream. Jodorowsky has a great talent for finding indelible images, and he assembles them together in a way that creates symmetry out of chaos. The film begins like a variation on a spaghetti western, emphasizing the genre's use of vast expanses of desert as a means of alienation (a scene of some bored gunmen waiting for anything to happen recalls the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West). But the film changes with its protagonist, languidly erotic as El Topo indulges in a good deal of group sex, sadistically violent as he duels the four masters, full-blown surreal as he renounces his physical self for a monastic life, and finally apocalyptic. Few films are so bound to their protagonist (and, by extension, Jodorowsky), and if I call El Topo self-indulgent, I mean it in the best possible way.
Jodorowsky straddles the sacred and the profane throughout El Topo. On the surface, the gunslinger's spiritual growth requires him to renounce the self by way of putting aside the pleasures of the flesh, echoing the most stringent aspects of Vedic faiths. At the same time, the filmmaker is clearly getting off on the copious amounts of kinky sex and cartoonish violence, and he wants us to do the same. Interestingly, it's the film's contradictory nature that is its greatest strength; by indulging all aspects of the human experience, the film is able to be philosophical but not pedantic, romantic but not bucolic, horny but not smutty. It's both visceral and meditative, a film that uses bodily harm as a way of understanding spiritual entropy and evolution. That Jodorowsky acknowledges his own weaknesses (his misogyny foremost among them) makes the hero's complicated journey more poignant. As the mother of one of the masters tells El Topo, "The deeper you fall, the higher you will rise."
What ultimately makes El Topo one of my favorite films is its sheer vitality. Jodorowsky imagines spirituality not as an empty religious concept but as a violent, tangible force that compels us to action. The film ends in revolution before arriving at a startling concept, that of death as a renunciation of everything once pure that has been endlessly co-opted and commodified into utter meaninglessness. El Topo is filled with death, but it's an affirmative film, one that in the protagonist's vaudeville act becomes tounge-in-cheek enough to avoid self-importance. Jodorowsky recognizes the story of man as a comedy about a noble animal that struggles, fails and struggles again in the hopes of seeing the light, if only for a moment.