DVD Review: Santa Sangre (1989)

Posted on October 24, 2012 by Ben

Review by Kit Rathenar

When a film runs to a full two hours and inside the first half hour has already managed to demolish a church and stage a funeral for an elephant, you know you’re dealing with a director of remarkable if somewhat skewed vision. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s extraordinary Santa Sangre (“Holy Blood”), originally released in 1989, is a surrealist classic of beauty, violence and tragedy. The narrative follows the story of Fenix, the son of a gringo circus-master and his beautiful but religion-crazed Mexican wife; traumatised in childhood by witnessing a brutal exchange between his philandering father and jealous mother, Fenix is committed to an institution. As a young man, he escapes and finds himself in the care of his now crippled mother, only to become enslaved to her seemingly insatiable need for vengeance upon the memory of Fenix’s father and his father’s mistress. As the coils of madness, tragedy and bloodshed tighten, through them moves the mysterious figure of the deaf-mute girl Alma, Fenix’s childhood sweetheart from his days in the circus. Can her innocence, courage and love save her former playmate from his fate? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is by no means straightforward.

But this is a movie whose plot is only one of its several raisons d’etre. It’s also an exuberant indulgence in pure spectacle, a celebration of colour and light, music and costume, dramatic violence and inspiring grace. Jodorowsky’s chosen settings for his narrative – from circus to madhouse to carnival to theatre – all lend themselves to larger-than-life depictions of both characters and scenes and he seizes every opportunity, presenting the viewer with a breathless procession of startling images. The soundtrack is especially cleverly integrated: consisting almost entirely of Mexican popular music, for a large part of the film it’s being performed on-screen by the circus band, blurring the viewer’s sense of which perceptions they’re sharing with the characters and which are purely on our side of the fourth wall. There’s one particularly striking scene in which Fenix’s parents are quarrelling violently and the band begin to play behind them, subliminally recontextualising their fight into something halfway between a circus routine and a dance; it’s both powerful and all the better for not being made explicit. Indeed, this film is short on explanation all around, keeping the dialogue to a needful minimum and expressing everything it can with visuals, body acting, and implication, which for me is another point in its favour. It’s a pleasure to encounter a director who obviously trusts his audience to be capable of joined-up thinking.

There’s also a level of metatextual filmmaking going on here, as Santa Sangre’s theme of family ties reflects its director’s own preoccupations and goes so far as to influence the casting. Jodorowsky gave the part of Fenix jointly to two of his sons, Adan who plays Fenix as a boy, and Axel who plays him as a young man. I’m normally chary of a director casting his nearest and dearest, but the two junior Jodorowskys both do their father proud; Axel in particular gives an extraordinary performance, by turns charismatic, vulnerable, touching and frightening. Despite the violence we see Fenix forced to carry out under the influence of his demented mother, he never lets the audience lose compassion or sympathy for the character and his fervent and emotive handling of the very final scenes is truly affecting.

While Santa Sangre is a magnificent film, it’s only fair to warn potential viewers that it does demand some intelligence, an open mind, and a relatively strong stomach – while the violence here isn’t excessive by modern horror standards, it’s still impactful, and at times imaginatively macabre enough to make even a hardened gorehound wince. On a purely artistic level meanwhile it feels a little unwieldy during its second half, scattering its plot strands perhaps slightly too far afield before it gathers them back in for the ending, but this is a minor criticism. Highly recommended; see this one if you can. Ideally on a big screen, as I imagine it’d be absolutely spectacular there.

As a final footnote, this new DVD release also comes with a mishmash of extras. There’s Adan Jodorowsky’s short surrealist farce “Echek”, in which the younger Jodorowsky demonstrates a directorial inclination rather more playful than his father’s; a longish deleted scene; a somewhat annoyingly hagiographic French documentary that consists of various close associates of Jodorowsky enthusing about the man himself; and a discussion session with Jodorowsky filmed at the ICA in 2002 which is by turns profound, funny and vulgar, and occasionally all three at once. There’s also the remarkable 90-minute documentary film La Constellation Jodorowsky, which is well worth watching as in seeking to understand Jodorowsky’s worldview it becomes an intriguing study in the search for self-identity, culminating in a wonderful reversal of roles as director Louis Mouchet comes in front of the camera himself as the focus of one of Jodorowsky’s “psycho-magic” sessions. Finally there’s Jodorowsky’s own commentary on the film itself, making this a pretty complete package. I’ll definitely be watching this one again.

Santa Sangre is released to Region 2 DVD and Blu-Ray on 5th November, from Mr Bongo Films.