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Dance of Reality, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Jodorowsky & family."
4 stars

I wouldn't necessarily expect Alejandro Jodorowsky to be particularly prone to nostalgia; the director, writer, and "psychomagician" has, throughout his career, favored the grandly imaginative and metaphysical to the mundane to an extent that few in any medium can approach. Seeing him do something so directly based upon his own childhood for his first movie in nearly a quarter-century is initially enough to make one wonder if he has succumbed to the tendency many old men have to idealize their youth. Fortunately, he's gone and made an Alejandro Jodorowsky movie, and if it's his last (he is 85, after all), its a good one.

That age means he was born right around the start of the Great Depression, which hit Chile, where Ukranian Jews Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky) and Sara (Pamela Flores) settled a few years before the birth of their son Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits), as hard as any place. So they live in Tacopilla, where the parents operate a lingerie store and Jaime despairs over how Sara coddles Alejandro out of her belief that he is the reincarnation of her dead father, dosing out his own brand of tough love in response.

There's a gag to that - Brontis is the real-life Alejandro Jodorowsky's son - and the nature of Jodorowsky's body of work makes it all but impossible to guess whether the filmmaker is professing a very real belief in reincarnation or just having a wink at the audience. This is doubly true given that Alejandro appears on screen and delivers narration, explicitly in-character as the man that young Alejandro grows into. There's another son playing someone who could slot in as a father/teacher, with one more also in the film and composing the music for good measure. Again, there may be nothing to this - Jodorowsky has been making movies with his family for so long that he may not be able to conceive of making a film without them in central roles.

And Brontis Jodorowsky's role is central; at a certain point it becomes clear that the film is as much about Jaime as Alejandro, if not more so. It's not a particularly smooth transition; as odd as old-man Alejandro's appearances are, they do firmly establish the film as being his memories, so when Jaime is off on his own, it feels a bit like the filmmaker is cheating, showing us something that we shouldn't be privy to, even if it wasn't a bit of a digression in other ways. That's even the case after the audience realizes that Jaime is probably the film's most interesting character, responding to the naked anti-Semitism he encounters to make himself more macho than the locals - even if he does sell stockings for a living - and trying to pull his son along on this path, no matter how poorly suited to it he may be.

Jaime is also a great admirer of Stalin, and that may actually be one of the less peculiar bits that Jodorowsky inserts into the story: Pamela Flores sings every line as Sara, and Sara alone, is in an opera; background players who do not actually do anything to affect the outcome of the movie wear blank masks, a group of men who have lost limbs in the local mine are rounded up for the garbage dump. That's before getting into the just plain odd stuff that appears in the background (why does the knicker shop have a basket full of alarm clocks on the counter, anyway?), or how long shots that take in the entire town will sometimes show it as it appeared in 2013. The meaning to any one element won't always be apparent - and that's only a partial list - but it's a surprisingly accessible sort of surrealism, a jumbling of a boy's memories and fantasies recalled seventy-five years later by a man who has never insisted on a sharp demarcation between dreams and reality on his work. It's beautiful, and in a more polished way than some of his earlier films; Jodorowsky had the knack for capturing a striking image well before he started working in comics, and it wouldn't be surprising if he had a hand from his artistic collaborators here. There's a bit of done-on-a-budget CGI early on (with the slight unreality during the style), but most of the film's visual flair is achieved with impressive design and fine cinematography by Jean-Marie Dreujou.

The cast also does a good job of presenting these larger-than-life takes on Jodorowsky, his family, and the bonds that exist between them. I don't know if Brontis Jodorowsky ever knew his grandfather, our how much the character he plays resembles the real man in any particular way, but it's a great, memorable performance, always very funny even at his most seemingly callous and abrasive, bringing out a more human side while only occasionally dialing back how Jaime is kind of thick in a lot of ways. Pamela Flores does something similar - Sara starts out as delusional, singing all her lines, and always dressed in a way that highlights her voluptuousness to an almost parodic extent (and for someone whose shop sells ladies' undergarments, she seldom seems to make use of them), but by the end a certain amount of wisdom has managed to manifest itself even though Jodorowsky never allows her to become terribly conventional for even a moment or two. On the other hand, while young Alejandro finds himself in a number of odd situations with stranger people, there is something very enjoyably grounded about young Jeremias Herskovits playing Alejandro. At his heart, this is a kid who loves and admires his father unconditionally even as he is terrified by the man, which just may be the most universal, easily-grasped theme ever to wind up front-and-center in an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, and Herskovits communicate it so effectively that he is missed a great deal when the film follows Jaime for an extended period.

Things do drag a bit there as Jaime's extended mission to eliminate the dictator whose posters litter the scenery takes center stage, and there are certainly plenty of other moments when some in the audience are going to feel it's gotten too weird, and "yeah, but compared to 'The Holy Mountain'" is not going to be much of a counter-argument. If this is Jodorowsky's last film (and who knows; he's a spry-looking octogenarian and may have found making this invigorating), it's at least a fittingly weird and comfortably sentimental look back at his early years.

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originally posted: 06/03/14 12:15:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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