Monday, July 7, 2014

The Dance of Reality (2013): Exorcising Demons on Screen (Fiction)

The Dance of Reality (2013)
dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Jodorowsky is constantly exorcising demons through film, but never has it been more explicitly laid out as in the semi-autobiographical The Dance of Reality.

In The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky documents his childhood growing up as the son of Russian Jewish Communists in Catholic Fascist Chile under the rule of then-dictator Ibanez. Or, rather the film is more about what it felt like to be a kid growing up under those circumstances. But, more than conquering the societal differences, Jodorowsky is commenting on what it was like growing up with an unemotional brute of a father who believed he could toughen his son through emotional and physical abuse.

The two central characters are Jodorowsky as a young boy and his father Jaime (played by Jodorowsky's son, Brontis). Jaime is a store owner, a fire fighter, and a card-carrying Communist who also believes that men should be men, and that teaching Alejandro to be stoic in the face of pain and suffering, then Alejandro will be more of a man. Early in the film, Jaime smacks Alejandro so hard, he breaks a tooth. When Alejandro has to go to the dentist, Jaime forces him to not take anesthesia as the pain makes him tougher. But, the child is not without emotional support. He gives himself a coddling mother who speaks only through opera. And, as a directorial conceit, Alejandro stars as himself standing behind his child avatar, telling him things about the future and offering support to his then-self. It's like those exercises where you write a letter to your child self.

This is the first Jodorowsky which has a directly identifiable major influence, namely that of Fellini's Amarcord, right down to the affinity for gigantic breasts (Alejandro's mom is remarkably well endowed), and bizarre sexuality. A major scene has Jodorowsky being invited into a young circle jerk, but then being rejected because he has been circumcised, while the other boys had not. Another is when he and his mother strips and cover themselves in shoe polish while chasing each other around the room. Clearly, Jodorowsky is exorcising some deep demons through this film.

The Dance of Reality is in part how he remembered childhood, and in part how he wished childhood actually was. He completely removes his older sister from the picture, explores Oedipal fantasies, and also sends his father on a third act journey to try to kill Ibanez, resulting in him being brutally tortured for no real reason and then coming back home broken and contrite. This blends seamlessly with Jodorowsky's usual heightened visuals and overloaded symbolism where the fantasias are filmed with the same surrealism as the realistic portions.

While Alejandro isn't explicit about which parts are real and which parts are fantasias, this is the first time he actually comes right out and explains what he means with his symbolism. Where Jodorowsky used to be content to give just a handful of dialogue that explains what's on screen, here he's spelling everything out through the dialogue. One representative scene is when a spiritualist gives Alejandro a metal symbol from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions, and then explains that each symbol represents the same God...but then Alejandro's father flushes them down the toilet telling him that God doesn't exist. Because this film is more about exorcising personal demons than exploring universal ideas, it is a little forgivable, but it's still the most spelled out movie of his career.

Because of the digital, and the leaning on Amarcord, Jodorowsky's warped fantasies also are less absurdist or surreal than what he used to lead us to. His visual composition is still as stunning as ever, but has now become bolder and more saturated than in films past. However, gone are the strange imagery of potato Jesus statues or church bloodbaths. The medium didn't allow the pervasive strangeness of Jodorowsky's oeuvre.

In the end, The Dance of Reality is more like Jodorowsky lite. He's more interested in exploring his personal past than exploring universal ideas or even general history. If the symbolism gets too strong, he's always around to explain what's happening, and we don't have to work for anything in the film. At 135 minutes, it also feels a little long in the tooth. Despite the flaws of The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky lite is still more entertaining and interesting than most mainstream films, and it's still highly recommended. It's Jodorowsky at his most accessible, and should be a good starting point if you've never experienced him before.

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