I was told the word “el topo” in the Spanish language translates to “the crazy,” and after seeing the 1970 film El Topo by Alejandro Jodorowsky, I believed this translation was correct. However, after careful research I have discovered 1.) I have a friend who either lies or doesn’t know as much Spanish as he thinks and, 2.) “el topo” actually translates to “the mole.”
While a title like “The Crazy” would have been very fitting, I can also understand the reasoning behind the fable-like title of “The Mole.” If the (supposedly) lone gunman all clad in black and traveling through the desert in a spiral path is not the first giveaway, there’s always the more obvious association, when the gunman buries himself in the thick, hot sand of the desert plains. However, it is also said the film’s name was due to the way such underground films in the late 60s and early 70s were finding their way to the surface and becoming commodities. Although somehow I believe this may have been a post-interpretation of the title.
This film became popular (if one can call it that) after its initial underground release, but when one Beatles’ member (namely John Lennon) watched this film for the first time, he loved it so much that he encouraged businessman Allen Klein to buy the rights to the film and distribute it. Allen Klein’s company (ABKCO) was primarily intended to distribute records, and there is much debate over the motive behind Klein’s ownership of many recordings and especially of this film. The story even goes that due to a dispute between ABKCO and the filmmaker Jodorowsky, the film never received distribution until just this year.
Now a deemed cult classic, El Topo is anything but refined Hollywood filmmaking, yet still holds water with the best of today’s independent cinema. While most stories today take more straightforward narrative approaches, there are still filmmakers striving to append to the genre Jodorowsky fits in. Take a look at Harmony Korine, Werner Herzog, Elias Merhige, and even Gus Van Sant.
Definitely not a film for everyone, the intent is for viewers to take their own meanings from films like this. I couldn’t help but draw conclusions to the Vietnam war throughout this film, most assuredly at the end when the “reincarnated” mole sets himself on fire much in the tradition of Buddhist monks in protest of the Vietnam war (most famously, the one who did this directly outside the US Embassy circa 1963). In fact it almost seemed kind of a rip-off of that associated press imagery that everyone now knows thanks to not only the media, but more recently the rock band Rage Against the Machine.
The mole is on a quest for enlightenment (get it?), and during this quest he encounters four “masters” of who each he will have a duel with. The mole generally cheats during these duels, and thereby wins, but the last “master” commits suicide before the mole gets a chance to duel with him (is this a statement to the banality of dueling?) I have read many interpretations of this film which call it a Biblical allegory; however, I don’t buy into this interpretation, because it’s too simplistic. Everything in art (and especially surrealistic art) seems to always be interpreting or alluding to some type of religious icon. That’s too easy. Jodorowsky was certainly into the religious iconography, but I do not believe that he was trying to allude to the Old or New Testament here intentionally.
War is what this film is about, and the banality and vanity of it. Atrocity is something we are faced with in the first few shots of the film, and along with a disjointed soundtrack, this makes for a film that is meant to keep us annoyed, even edgy but still interested at all times, much like following the day-to-day reports of a war through the media. The “masters” appear to be no more than various types of politicians, and the razed town that he encounters at the beginning feels too much like it may have been a town he was familiar with at one time. In this way the film could almost be a story of revenge in which the viewer is just not fully aware of the mole’s ulterior motives. We are let on at the beginning that the mole at one time did have a wife, who is now dead (as his young son buries her picture with his stuffed animal). His wife was also a mother to the young son which the mole eventually leaves with monks at the onset of the story. Was his wife killed by the outlaws that massacred everyone in this desert town? Does he leave his son with the monks because he plans to seek his revenge on the killers?
For me the imagery in the film is what’s most striking, and the soundtrack has a quality not unlike another cult classic Eraserhead. I believe Jodorowsky, in the grand tradition of other primarily surrealistic filmmakers, was simply trying to shock and appall audiences in 1970. But unlike the Luis Buñuel’s of the filmic world, whose surrealism is not nearly as simplified, but more convoluted and oftentimes more of an examination of religion, Jodorowsky examines the advent of war, by stripping down its main players (the politicians, high-ranking military officials, middle class promoters and innocent by-standers), and dissecting it for signs of a catalyst, purpose and realistic resolution.