“You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.” – The Alchemist
While all films are meant to be viewed, there are some very few that seem to exist as a means of reflecting not just the true values of a culture, but the viewer’s own soul. Not many succeed in that, with the goalposts of cultural zeitgeist (what can be seen as the individual "spirit" of a time or era) shifting and morphing, so that what was once a thing that spoke to a whole generation of people is now clichéd and therefore next to worthless, in terms of an ideal of reflecting a peoples' values back to them.
This movie seems to be one that has something to say about the nature of anything and everything, running the gamut of transformation, capitalism, militarization, commodification, mysticism (especially Tarot), cult of personalities, religion, and irreligion. I don't see the key points being made in this movie becoming outdated for as long as Western society continues. And there’s likely so much more that I haven’t even thought of yet, topics and themes that will become apparent to me through a second, third, fourth viewing. Such is the power of surrealism and almost purely symbolic characterization.
What we’re confronted with in the movie are characters at once almost entirely individualized from one another (albeit, almost purely symbolic of the planets of the solar system), only to be made into mirror images of the Alchemist. The enigmatic Alchemist is played by the movie's auteur director - and writer, producer - Alejandro Jodorowsky, a choice of self-referential and potentially third-wall breaking casting that says a lot about what we're meant to draw from the role. The Alchemist is a master who seeks to change his disciples from the materialistic and bizarre, fixated people they once were to those capable of achieving immortality.
However, this path to immortality appears to be a veiled ascendance towards a metaphysical enlightenment - a fact that the selfish followers are either oblivious of or are willfully ignorant to. Most of them exhibit traits belonging to the most abhorrent of what humanity has to offer – opportunistic in a foul way, cruel, possessing strange desires and traits more in line with what we typically see in almost cartoonishly evil characters. The one we're meant to most follow – and the most likeable - is the one known as the Thief, who is a clear stand in for a confused and near-helpless version of Jesus Christ.
All of the members of the Alchemist’s group have been assembled with the goal of losing their ties to the material world that gave all but the Thief riches and fame, with the express goal of finding - and taking the place of - the immortal Gods on Lotus Island who live atop the Holy Mountain. The movie goes from the lost wanderings of a clear stand-in for Jesus Christ to a description of a group of strange and hedonistic, monstrous people to a mystic heist movie without missing a beat. And it is glorious, unapologetic.
Throughout the movie, we find that perhaps the most interesting thing touched on (from a first time viewer’s perspective) is this idea of how foolish it is to use spiritual enlightenment as a tool to gain something as selfish as godhood for the "mere" sake of immortality.
The story is an archetypal journey that seems to go through the Tarot deck, from the Fool to the World, a dream that nevertheless has a line of logic that you can (thankfully) latch on to in order to weather the emotional and mental storm that this movie puts you through.
The film itself is a feast for the eyes, contrasting bright colors and bizarre, truly novel concepts (such as a factory, where “art” is made via assembly line… from the nude parts of paint-slathered people). Most importantly for something so surreal, the movie never seems to stray far into taking itself so seriously that it loses touch with a sense of humor, which ranges from almost infantile to this sort of deep satire on the nature of human existence.
As deeply enlightening and beautiful as it is silly and grotesque, this movie may be my favorite movie ever. It was a wonderful surprise to me when the ACPL acquired a DVD of the beautifully restored film. I found that the special feature in which Alejandro Jodorowsky explains his personal interpretation of the major Arcana of Tarot to be one of the most enlightening pieces I've ever experienced on the topic. To me, it is a feature not to be missed.
Kayla loves all things weird, wonderful, and macabre. Her soul’s in writing, and her hobbies include gaming, watching movies and television shows, and reading anything and everything. Her black cat’s TOTALLY, 100%, not evil.