Severin Films // 1989 // 122 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 7th, 2011
Forget everything you have ever seen...
The typical Hollywood film (which has become, for better or worse, the world standard) generally features a narrative driven by the desires of one person, and the film follows that person through some crisis as they are thwarted in achieving some goal. It's an old form of storytelling, and differs very little from the form as described by Aristotle centuries ago. Cinema doesn't have to be that way, despite the ubiquity of Hollywood cinema. No, with varying degrees of success and fame, directors and artists have been challenging our notions of what cinema is and could do. Out of the 1970s emerged one such auteur, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Although he's made films prior to 1970s, he reached a level of international acclaim for his film El Tope, a kind of hallucinatory Western that became a cult hit. He followed that film with the even more bizarre Holy Mountain, and his iconoclastic status was assured. He essentially disappeared from international view after Holy Mountain, preferring to write and lecture on everything from comic books to his own brand of shamanic spiritualism. He emerged again in the public consciousness in 1989, with Santa Sangre and all the elements that made him a cult icon in the '70s were back. Despite the film's warm reception, it's had only the spottiest of home video releases. That is, until now. Severin Films has taken the reins on this classic bit of weird cinema, fully restoring the print and offering a boatload of extras to die over fans of the director. It's the kind of release that showcases what DVD is all about.
Told in two narrative strands, Santa Sangre is the story of Fenix (played by the director's sons, one younger and one older), who is involved with the circus. In the flashbacks, we see young Fenix's adventures in the circus, including the philandering of his father and the cult obsessions of his mother. In the present day, we see Fenix involved in a mental institution and acting as his mother's arms in a bizarre psychodrama.
On one level, Santa Sangre is a fairly straightforward tale of revenge. Fenix's mother loses her arms, much to the boy's horror. When he grows up, he finds the people responsible and kills them. The flashback structure is a little off-putting at first, but not so convoluted as confusing. This, however, belies the fact that Santa Sangre is one weird movie. Imagine pretty much every signifier of "strange" that has been put on celluloid: the circus, dwarves, the mentally handicapped, weird religious cults, oedipal psychodrama, and animal slaughter. All these and more are present in Jodorowsky's weird world.
Hallucinatory is a word that gets thrown around a lot with Jodorowsky's cinema, and it totally applies. However, I think it's just as useful to think of his films as lacking a filter. Whatever pops into his head makes its way onto the screen. We've all probably had our brains make bizarre connections or private associations, but in Jodorowsky's case that's what makes it into the film. When someone gets buried, you or I might imagine their soul being taken up to heaven. Jodorowsky does one better and instead has a bird fly out of a grave. It's that kind of dreamlike, hallucinatory, associational logic that drives Santa Sangre. Next to the sheer beauty of some of his images, the chief pleasure of Santa Sangre might be the ability to watch another mind at play, totally willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to evoke a particular mood or feeling.
Santa Sangre is an important work by a major film artist, and Severin has pulled out all the stops to bring this film to home video. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is surprisingly free of print damage, skillfully rendering the vivid colors and shadows of Jodorowsky's world. The film does look a bit washed out, but I suspect that's more an intentional choice rather than a deficiency in the transfer. The stereo audio keeps the dialogue audible and the score well-balanced, though subtitles would still have been appreciated.
The extras, though, are were this release shines. They start on the first disc with a commentary between journalist Alan Jones and Jodorowsky himself. Jones is surprisingly patient with the somnambulant-seeming Jodorowsky, and the pair discusses Jodorwsky's film and life. It can be a little hard to suss out what Jodorowksy is saying through his thick accent and mumbling delivery. The first disc also includes eight minutes of deleted scenes with Jodorowsky commentary as well as the film's Japanese and domestic red-band trailers.
The second disc is a treasure trove. It starts with a 96-minute documentary that was commissioned by Severin and includes all-new interviews with the cast and crew. It does a fantastic job showing how the film was created and how it impacted its participants and the larger world of cinema. Jodorowsky makes another appearance in "For One Week Only: Alejandro Jodorowsky," a 1990 U.K. television program. Jodorowksy also appears in an onstage Q&A and a 2003 interview, together totaling about an hour of footage, plus a shorter interview with composer Simon Boswell running about eight minutes. Boswell is also responsible for a short film, "Blink Jodorowsky," and a music video, also included. One thing we learn from the supplements is that Jodorowsky initially intended to make a film about a Mexican gangster, and "Goyo Cárdenas Spree Killer" looks at the real-life inspiration for what would become Santa Sangre. Finally, a short film by Santa Sangre star Adan Jodorowksy, "Echeck" is included.
For those unprepared, Santa Sangre might look like the worst pile of self-indulgent crap, and I'll admit that there's a lot about the film I don't understand. It obviously requires patience and a willingness to suspend normal viewing behaviors as Jodorowsky transports the audience to a place outside of time. That might not be for everyone, especially those looking for a linear, logically driven plot.
This DVD set is almost a total triumph, and I feel like a heel for even mentioning this, but darn it if I don't miss subtitles (though there are English closed captions, which aren't quite the same). First, they'd be great on the feature because some spots are a little hard to hear (and I just like subtitles), but they'd be even better on the commentary with Jodorowsky, who can be difficult to decipher on the best of days due to his soft-spoken ways and thick accent. The lack of subtitles isn't a deal-breaker, but they are sorely missed.
Santa Sangre is a beautifully weird movie that cemented Alejandro Jodorowsky as a cult auteur. Severin Films has done a spectacular job bringing this long neglected film to fans with enough extras to satisfy even the most ardent admirers of Jodorowksy's films. For fans this is a must purchase, and for anyone curious about the more exotic edges of cinema this disc is at least worth a rental since it does a fantastic job not only presenting the film but letting its creator provide valuable context.
I forgot everything I had ever seen, but I won't forget Santa Sangre: not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Short Film
* Music Videos