There was a guy on Reddit who claimed that he had made it through every film in the book “1001 Films to See Before You Die” in only two short years.
While I would never want to become the kind of person who has enough free time to complete such a pilgrimage, I must admit: I was a little jealous.
At least, I reasoned, I could watch his top five. The first one I watched was “El Topo,” a 1970 Mexican Western film directed by (and starring) Alejandro Jodorowsky. Why that movie specifically? Well, the name means “The Mole,” and the mysterious allure of a Mexican film about subterranean mammals was too intriguing to resist.
Don’t get your hopes up. It isn’t about actual moles.
Rather, we are presented with a description of a mole at the beginning of the film. “A mole,” the narrator says, “digs for the sky and is then blinded by the sun.” This, of course, is false. A mole would not know what to do with a sky if it found one, and its eyesight is already pretty bad, so I doubt the sun would mess things up.
That being said, I appreciate the imagery.
The mole in question is the eponymous “El Topo,” a gunman who seeks enlightenment through fighting.
The film is…odd. Very odd.
In the first scene, we are shown El Topo riding over a sand dune, an umbrella in his hand and a naked child (his son, as we later learn) in in front of him in his saddle. They dismount.
“You are a man now,” Topo says. “Bury your first toy and a picture of your mother.”
Believe it or not, that’s pretty much as normal as it gets for the duration. Soon Topo finds a massacred village. Long story short, he tracks the culprits to a Dominican friary and kills them with his lightning-fast trigger finger.
“I am God,” he says as he kills their leader.
But that arc is just the epilogue, serving only to give him his love interest, a nun who remains nameless (Mara Lorenzio). In a move of questionable morality, he abandons his son with the friars and rides off with her.
Topo appears to be content with living a life of quiet mysticism among the sand dunes, but his lover Lady MacBeths him into taking on the four great gunmasters who live in the desert.
The problem with that is, well, Topo is a great gunman, but he’s nowhere near a gun master. These are people to whom the skill that swaggering desperados take for granted at high noon is a religion. A way of life.
That’s another thing: religion. “El Topo” is saturated in it, with philosophies ranging from Christian to Eastern to pagan black magic.
For example, the first gunman is a blind ascetic who keeps himself cloistered in a tower. Not only is he a crack shot, but he’s mastered the power to let bullets pass through “the empty spaces” in his body.
Can Topo beat him? No. But what choice does he have? The woman will leave him. So he cheats, and kills the first gunmaster by tripping him before battle.
Topo then seeks out these various sages of the desert and mercilessly cuts them down in dishonorable combat. In doing so, Topo destroys himself and all that he believes in.
At this point, the film pulls its oddest trick: it is really two stories. The first is Topo’s story of descent, and the second is his tale of redemption.
At the end of the first part, Topo is shot and betrayed by the woman. As the film fades to black, we see him being dragged away by a group of deformed and crippled hermits.
We then see an almost unrecognizable Topo (who is now inexplicably blond) being worshiped as a silent, comatose god by the hermits.
When he awakes, he finds that the hermits have been trapped in a cavern for decades by the cruel members of the village above. He then vows to help the villagers escape in any way he can.
In stark contrast to the beginning of the film, Topo admits that “I am not a God. I am just a man.”
Indeed, he is just a man now. It feels a bit like whiplash, as our beloved character is transformed from a stoic, menacing gunslinger to a benevolent beggar and do-gooder.
However, it works.
Obviously, “El Topo” is about as art house as it gets. It bombards us with surreal imagery and scenery. To say that watching “El Topo” is a religious experience would not only be pretentious, but unfair. Really, “El Topo” is more like watching a religious experience.
It is enlightenment that is the entire point to Topo’s struggle. It is a journey that few embark on, and fewer succeed in.
So instead of going to church or temple or whatever, give this little religious experience a try. It’s a strange ride, but, man, is it a good. one.