Thanksgiving with Alejandro: The Holy Mountain (1973)
Unlike Fando y Lis, which I found hard to synopsize, and El Topo, which was easily summed up, The Holy Mountain has a deceptively simple plot that wouldn’t take more than a single sentence to explain. The alchemist (Jowderowky) assembles representatives from each for the solar system’s planets and together they go on a journey into the spirit. All this is to ignore the opening scenes of the Christ-like thief (Horacio Salnas) as he finds the business of religion, survives being a false idol, and get thrown out of a church that doesn’t recognize his divinity. It is also not to bother to explain about the seven other companions that join the thief and the alchemist, all of which represent various decadent aspects of their world. A cosmetician, a millionaire, a toy weapon manufacturer, and an art dealer all become part of this group, but after delving into their stories, the film changes. As The Holy Mountain winds down to a conclusion, Jowderowky brings his visual film into reality and gives us a peek into a very real spiritual catharsis.
To prepare for the film, Alejandro spent a week with no sleep studying with a Zen master. His crew of actors lived communally, breaking themselves down and preparing for the film’s dramatic cinema verite denouement. Unfortunately, for all their spiritual undertaking, the last third of the film is the portion that works the least. Jowderowky breaks out a feast of symbols and images to begin his spiritual epic, delighting in mixing Judeo-Christian imagery with Tarot, Buddhism, and the mystic teachings of the Kabbalah. He draws from a rich color palettes filling up the screen with a depth that requires more than one viewing to really take in everything he and (for the third consecutive film) cinematographer Rafael Corkidi achieved. However in the last third when Alejandro brings it back to the real world, the movie falters stumbling toward an unsatisfying meta end.
Other than the director who once again took a central role in his own film, the rest of the cast was made up with actors who were unknown to an American audience or non-actors. However, once of the best stories surrounding The Holy Mountain was who was almost cast in the role of The Thief. After seeing El Topo and reading the script for Holy Mountain, Beatle George Harrison had a meeting with Jowderowky about taking on the role. Harrison had one small problem though. The scene in which the Alchemist would bathe out The Thief’s anus. Later the director would regret not taking it out and casting a star who would have certainly gotten his film huge exposure, but at the time, he declined to change his script and Harrison, not interested in getting his ass scrubbed on a 50 ft screen, opted out of the part. So it appears that while you can’t buy me love, you also can’t pay enough money to get a Beatle to show off his soapy ring piece.
Speaking of musicians (that is what we were speaking of, right?), one of the real improvements over his first two films was Jowderowky’s choice of soundtrack. Hiring avant guarde funk/fusion/jazz musician Don Cherry, the score springs to life with an urgency and a pop sensibility that was missing in his other features. He may be inundating you with bizarre images, but you were going to be tapping your foot as well. The sound effects in the film were equally impressive as they were improvised by Gonzalo Gavira whose work so impressed William Friedkin that he was hired onto the Foley team assembled for The Exorcist.
I’ve stayed away from injecting my personal religious opinion into this review of The Holy Mountain, but I will say that even as an atheist I found both Jowderowky’s indictment of organized religion and quest for spiritual awakening to be compelling themes. I also think that the film could be many things for many people. Depending on the viewers’ background there are many layers of understanding and symbology waiting to impact upon personal experience, and perhaps the only way to completely decode the film would be to spend a lifetime as a divinity scholar of some sort. While El Topo is still the most successful of the Jowderowky films I have watched, The Holy Mountain is a film I could see myself taking pains to explore. Perhaps that is part of my spiritual journey, and that’s something that Alejandro would surely understand.
Next week, it’s Thanksgiving, and that means the final installment of Thanksgiving with Alejandro. So after you eat your fill of turkey, come read about the last film I’ll be covering Santa Sangre (1989).