Review: With ‘Endless Poetry,’ Alejandro Jodorowsky leads us on a surreally inventive tour of his young adulthood
Since “Endless Poetry” is the latest film written and directed by the Chilean-born cine-shaman Alejandro Jodorowsky, you can be assured that it contains some of the most vividly strange moments you’ll encounter in a movie all year — wild, hallucinatory bursts of visual and conceptual insanity that beggar belief as surely as they defy easy description.
Still, it’s fun to try. Two poets begin a public reading of their work and wind up hurling raw meat and eggs at their audience. A woman tells someone’s fortune by consulting not just a deck of tarot cards but also a naked, visibly aroused man. A guy has sex with a diminutive woman in the middle of her menstrual cycle, the effect of which is accentuated by the room’s bright red walls. (It sounds like the kind of thing David Lynch might cook up, if he were just a bit more unhinged.)
Dynamically staged and ravishingly shot (by the superb cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his work with Wong Kar-wai), these giddy tableaux of social and sexual transgression coalesce around the tale of a young man breaking free of his family’s shackles and embracing his calling as a poet. That young man is none other than Alejandro Jodorowsky himself — or rather, a loosely fictionalized version of him — whose fantastically weird childhood was captured in the director’s previous film, “The Dance of Reality” (2014).
A sequel that plays just fine as a stand-alone work, “Endless Poetry” is the latest in a projected five-part autobiographical fantasia. Of course, Jodorowsky, now 88, has never needed the trappings of memoir to pipe dispatches from his subconscious directly onto the screen. He did that most memorably in his trip-tastic 1970 western, “El Topo,” which enshrined him in the kingdom of midnight-movie myth, and which can still elicit a mighty “What the hell was that?!” in pot-addled dorm-room viewings across America.
In “The Dance of Reality” and now “Endless Poetry,” his first feature efforts after a 23-year absence from filmmaking, that outrageous Jodorowskian sensibility hasn’t been tempered or tamed into submission. His delight in all things carnal and carnivalesque flows as freely as ever. The more personal focus seems to have invested his surrealism with a new playfulness and lucidity, as well as an emotional power that creeps in almost unbidden. It’s as if Jodorowsky were determined to make his wonderment our own.
Set during the 1940s and ’50s, the film begins with young Alejandro (Jeremías Herskovits) having just moved with his parents from Tocopilla, a seaside Chilean town, to the capital city of Santiago. His mother (Pamela Flores) is a figure of sweetness and light, as signaled by her charming habit of singing her every line in a lush soprano. (Equally charming: No one bats an eye.) By contrast, Alejandro’s store-owner father (Brontis Jodorowsky, the director’s oldest son) is a miserable brute who wants his son to be a doctor and tries to squelch his artistic dreams, usually by taunting him with anti-gay epithets.
Alejandro isn’t gay, something he confirms after locking lips with his openly besotted male cousin in one tender, bittersweet scene. Our hero’s first sexual experience will not take place until years later, when he’s in his 20s (and now played by the director’s youngest son, Adan Jodorowsky), defying his father’s wishes and pursuing his vocation in the company of fellow artists.
At the Café Iris, a nightly temple of Santiago’s bohemian scene, Alejandro forms an intense physical and creative bond with the lusty poetess Stella Díaz — played, in an exquisitely Freudian touch, by an unrecognizable Flores, no longer crooning but snarling her dialogue with suffer-no-fools ferocity. With her bright-red hair, white-powdered face and gold-painted breasts, Stella calls to mind the late drag performer Divine, though she’s also clearly been conceived along the lines of La Saraghina, the “devil woman” in Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2.”
Jodorowsky has cited Fellini as a major influence, perhaps needlessly, given the teeming, dreamlike invention of everything we see, which contrasts nicely with Adan Jodorowsky’s bemused stillness in the leading role. A mere summary of what transpires on screen — an angry schism in Alejandro’s family, a period of artistic discovery conducted with his best friend and fellow poet, Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), various episodes of lust, betrayal and reconciliation — would scarcely convey the form-busting visual wit and dizzying performative energy with which it all unfolds before Doyle’s ever-mobile camera.
The director doesn’t just re-create the past; he keeps calling it forth, like a tireless magician performing a two-hour-plus conjuring trick. At the beginning of the film we see cardboard cutouts and fake sets shooting up all over town, returning us to the Santiago of the director’s youth. Props and furniture are moved into place by faceless, shadowy stagehands. The artifice doesn’t push us out; it pulls us in.
To describe “Endless Poetry” as self-indulgent would be entirely accurate and not even remotely insulting. (Some selves, we’re reminded, are more worth indulging than others.) For all its riotous color and energy, the movie ultimately coheres quite readily as a parable of personal and social liberation. As he did in “The Dance of Reality,” Jodorowsky draws implicit parallels between his father’s tyranny, the horror of Nazi Germany and the dictatorship of Chile’s Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, whose second presidential term (1952-58) is underway as the film winds to a close.
Through it all, Jodorowsky maintains order not only behind the camera but in front of it, popping into the frame like a Brechtian ringmaster and giving affectionate pep talks to his younger counterparts. There’s something ineffably moving about seeing the filmmaker take stock of himself and his history as he gently nudges this traveling circus of a movie toward its next destination. If you’ve made it this far, you’ll likely want to follow. The story, like the poetry, continues.
(In Spanish, French and English with English subtitles)
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles
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