I adore surrealism. I think it is the most unique and brilliant sub-genre of art that has ever existed. How can complete absurdity, and otherworldly imagery, come together to form something so human and realistic? At the forefront of the surrealist film movement is Alejandro Jodorowsky, a man I have admired for many years, both through his graphic novels, writing and most notably his films. Every cinephile has that one film that changes their perception of what cinema can be completely, and for me, that was Santa Sangre, his partially autobiographical surrealist coming-of-age dark comedy. He repeated this structure after a two-decade drought with The Dance of Reality, which was an absolute joy of a film.
A filmmaker making a film based on their own lives can sometimes be very tricky – it could be overly sentimental and dastardly saccharine. The filmmaker is showing their own life, through their own rose-tinted glasses, and it can sometimes become an exercise in self-congratulatory nostalgia, which may be wonderful for them, but for the audience, seeing someone else’s life reflected on the screen can sometimes be unbearably cliched and annoying. Luckily, most filmmakers know to stay away from that entire trap completely by distancing their own lives from the films they make, because they know how difficult it is to have audiences connect with personal stories like this, and in the likely case the film has detractors, criticism towards the film can feel like criticism towards the nostalgia that the film represents. The only filmmaker who can effortlessly tell his own story while completely avoiding cliches and overly sentimental narratives is Alejandro Jodorowsky, and The Dance of Reality is his masterpiece.
What I love about the films of Jodorowsky is how they are more than just films by one man, but rather family affairs. All of his films have some form of involvement from his family, mostly his four sons. For fans of Jodorowsky, they will be delighted to see that Brontis Jodorowsky (his oldest son), who starred memorably in El Topo over forty years ago, has a major role in The Dance of Reality as the father of the main character, mirroring his own father’s performance in the acid western. The Dance of Reality also features two of Jodorowsky’s other children – real-life psychoshaman Cristobal as the helpful hermit, and musician Adan as a rebel anarchist. Even if it is not glaringly obvious that there is some kind of family undercurrent here, the ease the actors work with each other shows that they are far more than simply co-stars, but rather a more communal set of actors trying to create something original.
The film is wonderfully simple – it is set in the post-World War II era, in a tiny village in Chile, and tells the story of a family. Alejandro (Jeremías Herskovits) is a young boy with aspirations of moving beyond his little village. His father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky) is a fierce Communist looking to go down in history, and his wife is Sara (Pamela Flores), an operatic victim of domestic abuse who holds onto the flame of her father’s memory, which she sees reflected in her son. On a purely narrative level, it is a relatively simple coming of age tale about a boy’s journey to maturity. However, Jodorowsky is not a simple filmmaker, and he imbues this film with such magnificent surrealism and wonder. The film is told with truly elecritifying colour and extravagant production design. Everything from the costumes to the sets are beautifully detailed. Each and every shot could be a painting, and Jodorowsky uses his flair for the visual to show us his childhood as he remembers it – colorful, grandiose and filled with rich artifice and strange characters, and it is more honest that any other autobiographical work, as many people try and portray their childhoods as being as realistic and angst-filled as possible, while Jodorowsky abandons all sense of reality by showing his childhood as he remembers it. It is truly a unique approach, and made The Dance of Reality an unequivocal masterpiece.
A film as gorgeous as The Dance of Reality does not need good performances, as the visual spectacle and the story itself is more than adequate to keep the audience captivated. However, Jodorowsky brought out some of the best performances of the year in his actors. Brontis Jodorowsky commands the screen as the fierce Communist that undergoes rapid transformation, going from a biased, racist monster to the exact kind of person he used to deride and mock. Many could say this film is about Jeremías Herskovits’ character, but it is Brontis that drives this story, and creates a heartbreakingly compelling character. However, Jeremías Herskovits gives a wonderful performance (if not sometimes uneven, shifting from dangerously amateur to brilliantly compelling) as the younger version of the director. Jeremías Herskovits serves his purpose as being a surrogate for the older Jodorowsky to tell his story, but he is also wonderfully effervescent as the joyful and optimistic young man with a great mind. Pamela Flores is breathtaking as Jodorowsky’s mother, a role where she only sings, and adds another level of bizarrely great surrealism to this film. Smaller performances, from professionals to amateurs, make The Dance of Reality even more interesting and enjoyable than it should have been.
The Dance of Reality is a rare film that seems to succeed perfectly on all three major facets of filmmaking – it is a notably brilliant directorial achievement, features fantastic performances, but perhaps the strongest part of this film is the writing. Alejandro Jodorowsky is more than a filmmaker – he is a poet. Not only is this film visual poetry, it also features some wonderfully bizarre philosophical journeys into the mind of its brilliant creator. The film has a powerful story, punctuated with poignant moments, combining the angst of childhood with the wonder of the surreal world. There are also wonderfully touching interludes, where Alejandro Jodorowsky himself appears behind his younger self, lamenting on the moments of his childhood. Those moments are poetry in their purest form – honest, touching statements and reflections on life that are not only examples of what Jodorowsky feels represents his experiences growing up, but rather universal statements of the soul and of human consciousness. If this sounds complicated, it is because it is truly difficult to explain the pure compressed energy of brilliance that Jodorowsky instilled in this film at every turn, which proves that he is a maestro of cinema.
The Dance of Reality is a wonderful film, with gloriously touching moments of whimsy, wonder and reflection. It is an amazing film that will surely mean a lot to everyone in some way. It is beautifully made, delightful to look at and is often very funny, but also allows the audience to think upon their own lives and their own experiences growing up. It can sometimes veer into territories that might be considered a bit too strange and bizarre, but it is truly worth it, because The Dance of Reality somehow manages to be both a gloriously far-fetched surrealist bildungsroman, but also a realistic and honest representation of childhood. It is for that reason that I will call The Dance of Reality one of the greatest films of the 21st century, and anyone who has seen this film should not disagree, because it is a masterpiece in the most clear definition.