This IMDB review of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s THE HOLY MOUNTAIN says “If you liked ‘The Wall’ (you know, the Pink Floyd movie), but thought it was a bit of a downer and suffered from the lack of a fat woman humping an excitable, legless, animatronic horse, this movie could be for you” which may be a little flip but not entirely wrong description of what to expect from this film.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky until I watched Jodorowsky’s Dune, a (fantastic) documentary about his failed attempt to make an insanely ambitious adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel. His approach was to recruit a set of “spiritual warriors” completely dedicated to the creation of the movie. Even though they didn’t wind up getting their Dune made his warriors went on to influence Alien, Blade Runner, Flash Gordon and pretty much every sci-fi movie since.
The plot of The Holy Mountain was familiar in that regard. It is chiefly concerned with an Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky) and his attempt to achieve immortality by assembling a group of the most powerful mortals in the world and overthrowing a set of immortal beings who live atop the titular mountain. Each of these seven people gets their own segment of the film, so we understand why they have been selected.
Lest you think that these are somehow virtuous individuals, every introduction illustrates a new form of wrath, greed, vanity or other sin. They are arms dealers, militarized police captains, corrupt political advisors, millionaires. People are raped and killed. Factories churn out weapons, art, and religious icons in massive quantities. This is a sick world, and the depiction of everything the most powerful individuals have done helps flesh out the depravity on half a dozen different levels.
The cynicism could easily become overbearing, but it’s a testament to Jodorowsky’s creativity that this doesn’t really happen. He presents shocking imagery with an intense visual style and an underlying black humor - everything feels delivered with a little smirk.
Consider the backstory for Axon of Neptune, the secret police chief. He builds a police force of castrated boys (“Your sacrifice completes my sanctuary of one thousand testicles” he claims to his latest recruit) and puts them to use slaughtering a crowd of protesters. (We’re not sure what the protest concerns but it really could be anything given what we’ve seen so far).
Right off the bat, a set of explosions disrupt the protest. But the smoke clouds are a rich azure, so the scene looks more like a Holi celebration than a slaughter.
The bits where protesters are killed are all played for effect - the tone, the action, and the acting all indicate an atrocity. But the visuals themselves are subversive - Jodorowsky uses proxies for gratuitous gore. We’re aware of what is going on without needing to suffer through it directly.
In this scene, the police are obviously throwing and spraying red paint onto the crowd.
A set of eviscerations play out in odd fashion. Sausages and ribbon stand in for intestines.
Police pull lightbulbs, dirt, watermelon, a houseplant, even a live dove from the innards of their victims.
An officer removes a cauliflower from between the legs of a strawberry-covered woman and stomps on it.
The most elaborate special effects come at the end, where a set of copper pipes molded to actresses’ heads spurt different colored paints onto the ground. Perhaps the only literal brutality comes from Axon himself, as he pulls the head off of an obviously a crude animatronic as a skull slides up from between its shoulders.
For the cost of some groceries, basic hardware supplies and a bunch of extras, Jodorowsky stages what would be an iconic scene if the rest of the movie weren’t filled with such flourishes. Broadly, The Holy Mountain is a stunning Mind Screw and gorgeous to watch. I think it’s one of the best cinematic treatments for the “assemble a party and go on a quest” archetype. Just don’t expect much catharsis from the ending, which stops the movie like a brick wall.