GRINDHOUSE VS. ARTHOUSE
directed and written by: Alejandro Jodorowsky
starring: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Adan Jodorowsky, Sabrina Dennison
1989/ Mexico/ Rated R/ 123 minutes
Although Santa Sangre was released twenty-one years ago, I was lucky enough this past Monday, October 18th, to have seen it played again in a theatre. I was a Santa Sangre virgin, and admittedly I was very excited for this screening. I was not disappointed in the quality of the show, the print was lovely. The colours were vibrant, although not always accurate, with some people occasionally glowing teal. I was crammed into a small theatre, with the kinds of cup holders that tip over if the cup doesn’t perfectly fit. So to get that out of the way, the perfect set up to enjoy this film for the first time.
Santa Sangre is about a young man and his mother, who are/were circus performers. The movie follows the protagonist (Fenix) through two different times in his life: as a child who performs as a magician in a circus with both of his parents, and Fenix all grown up, with his mutilated mother, who is clearly suffering for some sort of mental trauma.
Right away I noticed how imaginative and surreal the film is. The story begins with a man, nearly naked, with a huge bird tattoo in a mental asylum acting like an animal. Then we get one of the longest movie flashbacks I have ever personally experienced. We learn that the guy is so fucked up because as a kid he was a circus performer with his circus performer parents and friends. One day his cheating father is caught by his religious crazy mother and then everything hits the shit fan. Literally this flashback, which really is the foundation for the rest of the film, is about twenty minutes long. When it went back to “now”, I had completely forgotten that the adult crazy guy was even in this movie. Although this probably sounds like I am complaining, the movie picks right back up and so you do not really get the time to be confused. In fact, I almost feel as if I am not doing this film justice by writing this review because I think I need to watch a couple more times before I fully understand everything. Jodorowsky really does throw a lot of aesthetic, symbolic, twists and generally messed up stuff at the viewers constantly. I think that this sort of pacing in a movie helps to disorient the viewer on what is actually happening, allowing Jodorowsky to throw in ridiculously surreal moments without it being strange to the viewer. The ending is surprising, yet the clues are all hidden in plain sight throughout the entire movie (although in retrospect).
But this is not your standard exploitation film. There is a lot of symbolism that pushes this film into art house. Fenix’s mother Concha is part of a church that is clearly feminist in nature, from the pool of blood, to the red cloaks with the crossed arms in two X’s, and the destruction of their church by the male dominated religion. But, why? I noticed a lot of gender symbolism, and the battle between sexes is quite evident. However, I think that the symbolism is meant to display individual identity and confusion in choosing sides in this battle of the sexes. I do not think that it was entirely random Fenix sees his parents have raunchy sex right before the strange scene of the elephant dying. Again, we see the struggle between male and female as Fenix wears robes of his mother’s religion during the elephant’s procession which is matched again by Fenix’s father carving a bird into his chest. The countless references to other films allow Jodorowsky to balance insanity with coherence. He uses typical troupes such as long lost lovers, with well known Freudian theories, revenge and good verses evil. This movie would not make a whole lot of sense if you ignored the symbolism because sometimes entire scenes are abstract and seemingly irrelevant to the plot.
Santa Sangre is a grotesque movie. There is a lot of nudity, sex, inappropriate relationships, gore, blood, murder, freaky clowns, people with Downs-syndrome, prostitutes, cocaine, dwarfs, and more. Despite the beauty of this film, it is still an exploitation film. It is very successful at being both attractive and repulsive, inspiring and disturbing. It is certainly not for everyone, but if you love dream like visuals and a plot line that will never entirely make sense, this ones for you.
I actually can’t decide on a final “score” for Santa Sangre. I sincerely loved the film, the artsy-ness of it, the gore, the strangeness. If I were to mark it out of 5, I would feel bad for giving it any less than 5… but was it a perfect film? I don’t know. Therefor, I am unable to score this film. Just go watch it.
Much thanks to Vagrancy Films for keeping some Grindhouse alive.
If you missed this fantastic show:
Vagrancy Films has already announced their next show: City of the Living Dead
at Rainbow Cinemas, located in London, Ontario at the used-to-be-Galleria mall (now Citiplex I think or something like that).
Saturday November 13th 2010 11:30PM.
$10 at the door. 18+
Vagrancy Film’s facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=22274391312