Circus Beserkus: Alejando Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989) – Blu-ray review
Rule #1 in the on-screen depiction of madness: it helps if the film looks as if it’s been made by a madman.
(Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)
All film critics play a game, whether intentionally or not, that involves classifying a film against what’s come before. Sometimes, it’s easy: if it’s got cowboys, you’re watching a Western; if they shoot a laser gun, it’s sci-fi. At other times, the references get more obscure. Santa Sangre has been compared Fellini, Bunuel and weirdo 1950s horror flicks like The Hands Of Orloc. All of these comparisons are apt, yet they mask what the critics really want to say. Namely, that Santa Sangre cannot be classified, except under the “did I really just watch that?” file.
It begins with a man, Fenix, in an insane asylum refusing to come down from the tree in his padded cell, and insisting on eating raw fish… and that’s the most sensible moment in the whole film. From there, the film flashes back to the man’s childhood in a circus, and forwards to his eventual escape from the asylum. The result is a steamy, seedy melodrama burnished with outré flourishes of horror, a telenovela drenched in blood and soaked in strangeness.
Set partly in a circus, the film has a genuine freakshow sensibility – and Jodorowsky, as per habit, casts genuinely disabled actors, notably during a sequence in which a group of Downs Syndrome men are cajoled into taking drugs and sleeping with a prostitute. Exploitation, you might call it, except Jodorowsky’s sympathies are staunchly with the outsiders. He isn’t sensationalising, but creating a cinema of sensation.
Jodorowsky’s sinous camerawork only cuts away when the narrative warrants it, intent on showing things you’d probably never dreamed of – a Church built around a blood-filled bathing pool; or the funeral procession of an elephant, which is dropped into a garbage-filled ditch for the local beggars to feast on. The disconcerting mix of uncanny imagery and the palpable realism of the presentation instantly draws you into the film’s world. When a key character loses their arms, Jodorowsky places the actor in plain sight, daring you to spot how and where the arms have been hidden.
For all the shock value, though, there’s purpose too: a rigorously pursued tale of familial dysfunction, religious mania and resultant madness. The sunlit, carnivalesque exuberance of the flashback gives way to claustrophobic interiors, nightmarish night-time visions of perverts ripping their own ears off and a suffocating stalk ‘n’ slash narrative.
Admittedly, the film suffers slightly in its second half; just as Fenix’s youth casts a pall over his subsequent life, how can Jodorowsky eclipse the bravura brilliance of his opening? The material risks becoming almost normal (well, as normal as a story about a man browbeaten into becoming a killer by his mad mother can be) and it’s a shame that the film’s extraordinary symbolism amounts to little more than a Freudian freak-out. Even so, Santa Sangre makes most ‘cult’ films look like the work of lazy, self-conscious amateurs; this is the real deal.