Writer-director Alejandro Jodorowsky does not subscribe to the ideologies of conventional cinema. Boy rarely gets girl, there's no such thing as happily ever after, and plot is secondary to mood. His idiosyncratic films chart a course that few other filmmakers would dare navigate; the Chilean-born auteur first made his mark with 1970's El Topo, a spellbinding mash-up of mystic Western, philosophical tract and drug-fueled surrealism. Championed by the likes of John Lennon and his business partner, Allen Klein, Jodorowsky acquired funding to create 1973's The Holy Mountain, an even more outré work primarily concerned with metaphysical matters.
Both films are utterly striking, flirting with the fringes of pure cinema and are adored by a fervent band of acolytes. Each movie is concerned less with linear narrative than with delivering stirring, frequently bizarre imagery that lingers in your mind like some half-remembered dream.
After his early '70s success, Jodorowsky made just one more film (1978's Tusk, generally regarded as a minor work in the director's canon) before his career would hit a lull. A full decade would pass before Santa Sangre (Holy Blood) was unveiled, but Jodorowsky had kept busy in the interim, locked in legal wrangles with Klein over ownership of El Topo and The Holy Mountain as well as embarking on a failed, 14-hour adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune that, reportedly, was set to star Orson Welles and Salvador Dali. Nevertheless, it was a wholly different landscape into which Jodorowsky released Santa Sangre, arriving as it did just on the cusp of the early '90s indie film revolution.
But no one would mistake this work for something from the Tarantino or Soderbergh school -- just as El Topo and The Holy Mountain secured Jodorowsky's place in the cult filmmaking pantheon, Santa Sangre is viewed by many critics as the logical next installment in what's considered a loose trilogy. As with his two previous, best-known works, Santa Sangre blends many disparate ingredients into its intoxicating cinematic stew, creating a remarkable work that provides some truly indelible images.
The narrative, such as it is, of Santa Sangre is split roughly in two, between a flashback and a flash-forward, focused on Fenix (played as an adult by Jodorowsky's son Axel; as a child by Jodorowsky's other son, Adan). As the film opens, the adult Fenix is perched in what appears to be some kind of sanatorium, before recalling his turbulent youth, during which his mother Concha (Blanca Guerra) and father Orgo (Guy Stockwell) fought bitterly, resulting in mutual maiming and deformity. In the present day, the adult Fenix reunites with his now-armless mother, literally supplying her missing limbs, and embarking on an odyssey of blood-soaked retribution.
Of course, no summary can do justice to what Jodorowsky has wrought. His films are best experienced, rather than academically dissected. Jodorowsky's cinema is that of feeling over substance; his films produce strong reactions based on the visual, although his screenplays don't necessarily shy away from cerebral subject matter. (Of course, it goes without saying that one critic's cerebral subject matter is another's pretentious gasbaggery; Jodorowsky is nothing if not divisive.)
A frequently mesmerizing collage of striking, phantasmagorical, almost hallucinatory images, often composed on an impossibly grand scale and replete with dwarves, the mentally handicapped and animals, Santa Sangre has its roots in the most unlikely of places. Originally, Jodorowsky was tapped to create a film about real-life Mexican criminal Gregorio Cardenas (this is touched upon in the supplements).
From that relatively mundane starting point, the filmmaker, working with screenwriters Roberto Leoni and Claudio Argento, spun off in his own, unique direction; it's still possible to see elements of the original idea at times throughout Santa Sangre, although it's a safe bet the finished product is nothing like what was first discussed.
Spirituality, sex and violence intermingle over the course of Santa Sangre, with revenge being the engine which propels the film forward. It is Fenix's mother, Concha, who first exacts vengeance upon her philandering husband, just as Fenix himself is enlisted to help his mother, later in life, settle a few more old scores -- or so it seems. (It goes without saying that there's an undeniable Oedipal undercurrent, not to mention an unshakable sense that you're watching something pried loose from the brain of David Lynch.)
Amid all this, Jodorowsky fashions, with help from cinematographer Daniele Nannuzzi, some truly disturbing, macabre and yet weirdly gorgeous set pieces (the brief graveyard sequence, late in the film, with its stark white, pleading corpses, is a ghoulish stunner, as is the gory, poignant climax). Time and again, the film smashes together eroticism and bloodshed, surrealism and wonder. Despite its eclectic oddities, Santa Sangre is, arguably, Jodorowsky's most "straightforward" work -- using that term in the loosest possible sense -- and one which offers up some interesting ideas about the concepts of rebirth and redemption.
The cast, led by Jodorowsky's son Axel (who is tasked with some grueling duties here), often feels secondary to the images onscreen, but no one sticks out as being particularly awful. Given Santa Sangre's heightened reality, many of the peculiar or over-the-top performances feel of a piece with the director's intentions, rather than a false note to be singled out.
Largely unseen since its debut in 1989, Severin Films has rescued the film from obscurity with this new DVD and Blu-ray release, which now means that all three of Alejandro Jodorowsky's best-known films are available to the public. He followed Santa Sangre quickly, with 1990's The Rainbow Thief, but hasn't directed another feature since. He's reportedly working on a sequel to El Topo titled Abelcain, but the status of that project and a few assorted others is unknown. Hopefully, the filmmaker, who will turn 82 this year, will have one more chance to fashion an unforgettable movie -- it would be extremely interesting to see what Jodorowsky could do with the relatively limitless field of digital special effects.
Nevertheless, it's heartening to know that future generations won't have to make do with sub-standard prints, rare public screenings or wonder in vain what any of these films is like, with no easy access. Santa Sangre, just as with other Jodorowsky films, is not for everyone, but for those who place themselves in his capable hands, they will experience the outer limits of cinema's possibilities.
Santa Sangre makes its DVD debut with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Shockingly, given the film's cult status and its relatively miniscule budget (IMDb estimates the film cost around $787,000 to make), Jodorowsky's 22-year-old movie looks far more pristine than one would expect. (According to press notes accompanying the DVD, Santa Sangre has been fully restored for this release.) Despite the digital spit-and-polish, there's a faint, washed-out quality apparent in much of the movie, although the image occasionally pops with vibrant color. Throughout, detail is excellent, with no discernible visual flaws distracting from the overall experience. A top-notch presentation of a film that deserves great care and handling.
As with the visuals, Santa Sangre's soundtrack has also been cleaned up for this initial offering on DVD. The English, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack, by and large, conveys dialogue and score without too much trouble. It's not without its flaws, however; particularly in the early scenes, there's a distinct warble to some of the high end (most noticed in the score) and there are inevitably snatches of dialogue that aren't heard perfectly clearly, but these few hiccups don't subtract from the film's cumulative power. As with the image, it sounds much sharper and more robust than one would expect for a film of such age and status. Optional Italian and Spanish mono soundtracks are included but, frustratingly, no optional subtitles are offered (they would've come in handy for those few instances of unintelligible dialogue).
Kudos to Severin Films, the company responsible for this DVD/Blu-ray release, for assembling such a thorough package of supplemental material. Much like the 2007 releases of Jodorowsky's signature films -- El Topo and The Holy Mountain -- this edition of Santa Sangre does not skimp on the bonus features, placing the film and filmmaker in proper context. This set, spread across two discs, features the restored Santa Sangre on the first disc, along with a commentary track featuring Jodorowsky and British journalist Alan Jones. The pair wastes little time diving into the nuts and bolts of not only Santa Sangre, but also why Jodorowsky had such a long gap in his filmography. Be prepared to up the volume, however: Jodorowsky has a tendency to mumble, as well as digress slightly from the patient Jones's points. Coupled with his accent, it can make for tough going (again, Severin, why not spring for subtitles?). Nevertheless, it's a fascinating listen as these two men discuss this one-of-a-kind project. Seven minutes, 35 seconds of deleted scenes (presented in rough-looking fullscreen) are offered up, with commentary from Jodorowsky and Jones. The film's two-minute, red-band theatrical trailer (presented in, again, rough-looking fullscreen) is also included, as is the two minute, 54 second Japanese trailer (presented in fullscreen), with trailers for other Severin titles completing the first disc.
The second houses the bulk of this set's extras, leading off with the 96-minute documentary "Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre" (presented in anamorphic widescreen). Newly created by Severin Films explicitly for this set, it's a terrific piece, directed by David Gregory, that sets Santa Sangre within the context of its co-creator's life, as well as providing an extensive look behind the scenes of the production. The doc contains fresh interviews with Jodorowsky, co-writer Roberto Leoni; his sons/actors Cristobal (nee Axel) and Adan Jodorowsky; actors Teo Tapia, Thelma Tixou, Blanca Guerra, Sabrina Dennison and Elenka Tapia; tattoo designer Sergio Arau, composer Simon Boswell and unit publicist Greg Day. (And, mercifully, Severin has seen fit to provide forced English subtitles for Alejandro Jodorowsky on this particular supplement.) For die-hard fans of Santa Sangre and Jodorowsky's work, it's essential viewing. The 32 minute, 30 second featurette "For One Night Only: Alejandro Jodorowsky" (presented in fullscreen, clearly sourced from VHS, and, according to a title card, modified because of copyright guidelines) was first broadcast on the UK's Channel X in 1990. The program features interviews with Jodorowsky, Dennis Hopper, Marcel Marceau, Omar Sharif and others, all conducted by none other than Jonathan Ross. The 17 minute, 39 second featurette "Goyo Cardenas Spree Killer" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) delves into Jodorowsky's initial inspiration for Santa Sangre, the Mexican serial killer that served as the basis for the character of Fenix.
Also on board is a 24 minute, 35 second Q&A (presented in anamorphic widescreen) conducted with Jodorowsky in London, in 2002, following a screening of Santa Sangre. Yet another Jodorowsky interview, this one from 2003, is included (presented in anamorphic widescreen) and runs for 31 minutes, 17 seconds. Hopefully you're not tired of hearing Jodorowsky speak, because there's one more interview with him, this one (which runs seven minutes, 56 seconds) conducted with composer Simon Boswell, (presented in anamorphic widescreen), who is heard offscreen. Boswell also directs the two minute, one second short "Blink" (presented in anamorphic widescreen), which stars -- you guessed it -- Jodorowsky. The five minute, 47 second music video "Close Your Eyes" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is likewise directed by Boswell and features clips from Santa Sangre and an appearance from Jodorowsky. The two-disc set closes on a poignant, familial note: The three minute, 55 second "Echek," Adan Jodorowsky's debut short film (presented in anamorphic widescreen), is offered with optional commentary from his father, Alejandro.
Writer-director Alejandro Jodorowsky does not subscribe to the ideologies of conventional cinema. Boy rarely gets girl, there's no such thing as happily ever after, and plot is secondary to mood. His idiosyncratic films chart a course that few other filmmakers would dare navigate; the Chilean-born auteur first made his mark with 1970's El Topo, a surreal mash-up of mystic Western, philosophical tract and drug-fueled surrealism. Championed by the likes of John Lennon and his business partner, Allen Klein, Jodorowsky acquired funding to create 1973's The Holy Mountain, an even more outré work primarily concerned with metaphysical matters. As with his two previous, best-known works, Santa Sangre blends many disparate ingredients into its intoxicating cinematic stew, creating a remarkable work that provides some truly indelible images. Santa Sangre, just as with other Jodorowsky films, is not for everyone, but for those who place themselves in his capable hands, they will experience the outer limits of cinema's possibilities. Highly recommended.