DIRECTOR Alejandro Jodorowsky WRITER Alejandro Jodorowsky; Roberto Leoni; Claudio Argento; Roberto Leoni (adaptation) STARS Axel Jodorowsky; Blanca Guerra; Guy Stockwell CINEMA 21 September
Repeat viewings of Santa Sangre enthral the viewer no less each visit, so otherworldly its presence, the whole film playing out like an elaborate, albeit twisted stage show. Today’s remastered arrival to big screen really could not be more welcome.
Directed by avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, Santa Sangre is often described as one of his best; it is strangely accessible, despite some attempts to throw the viewer off the mark. Telling itself in two parts, first flashback then forward, it’s a twisted coming-of-age tale, in a way, for our deeply disturbed central character, Fenix, who we meet in a lunatic asylum. He believes he is a bird, spending his time naked, perched on top of a tree trunk, and refuses to eat anything but raw fish. A suitably impactive opener, one ponders what could have reduced the young man to this unusual state of insanity…
We are taken back to Fenix’s childhood in a circus, run by his knife-throwing father, Orgo, and trapeze artist mother, Concha, who is also the leader of a religious cult. Here he lives a somewhat lonely life, largely observing from the sidelines, until his parents’ tempestuous relationship comes to a violent and very final end after Orgo is tempted too far by the circus’ Tattooed Woman. It is the long-term exposure to cruelty and controlling behaviour that has driven Fenix mad, the final act of violence a catalyst having sent him into an insular world that feels safer than the complete unknown of conventional life around him. Back to present day, and a bizarre set of coincidences lead to Fenix being reunited with his bitter mother, who exerts cruel, psychological control to use him physically in her wreaking of revenge on every female possible.
A simple story it may sound but most certainly is not; Santa Sangre really is a film best entered blind on first viewing, its devil in its detail. This is a trip that was calculated carefully, the near constant use of slightly off-key circus music adding to its hypnotic quality, with performances that are overly-theatrical (yet never camp) adding to the impression of a show as opposed to a film. The spectacle here is just as important as the plot, if not more than. Both nightmarish and charming, the world presented is so immersive that it’s a journey you almost wish would not end, other than for the sympathy felt for poor Fenix, whose ordeal may or may not be his own doing. An utterly essential film, those for whom first viewing is on big screen are to be envied.