The story begins with a naked man perched atop a tree-trunk in a padded cell. This is Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky), who is under the impression that he's an eagle. How he got this way we discover from a lengthy flashback into his traumatic childhood. His father – a knife thrower rejoicing in the name of El Gran Orgo – recruits a tattooed lady into his circus troupe, then falls under her spell while his jealous wife looks on in fury. The denouement is bloody and young Fenix (a heartbreaking Adan Jodorowsky) is there to witness every blistering detail.
Back in the present day, on a cinema outing with his fellow inmates, Fenix is shaken out of his trance-like existence when he stumbles upon the hated tattooed lady once again. Burning with desire for vengeance, he escapes the clinic, encounters his mother (the fiery Blanca Guerra), revives his circus career and pretty soon blood is hitting the walls to a frantic mambo beat. When a sexy burlesque dancer warms to Fenix, mother disapproves, the trollop has to go and it's time to think about finding a nice, secluded burial plot with room for multiple graves.
The flashback section of Sante Sangre is Jodorowsky at his best, a melange of the sublime, the absurd and the horrifying. One dazzling image follows another. A white horse tethered to the chrome bumper of a purple '50s Pontiac. The funeral of an elephant which ends with starving shanty town-dwellers dismembering the massive corpse. The defence of a chapel from smoke-belching bulldozers that disintegrates into farce when an investigating bishop discovers that its spring of holy blood is coloured with red paint. It has the exhilarating free-associative quality of Fellini's Amarcord (1973), but Jodorowsky surprises you with insights that are all his own.
Swaggering through these sequences is Orgo (Guy Stockwell.) Grossly overweight, dressed in sparkly rhinestones and fitted out with a blond wig and mascara, he is a walking joke but also a haunted man (he's said to have killed a girl in America.) Given to communicating in grunts and growls, his true medium of expression is knife-play. When young Fenix cries at the elephant's funeral, Orgo makes his son a man by using his knife to prick out a tattoo of an eagle on his chest. The boy weeps and the blood flows, but it's a perverse act of tenderness which somehow convinces you that there is a caring father beneath the clownish make-up. In that one scene Jodorowsky says a lot about the link between love and pain.
The rest of the film doesn't quite match this pitch of inspiration, but it still teems with macabre laughs and striking visual poetry. Axel Jodorowsky drives the revenge drama onwards with a gymnastic lead performance, racked with fits at one moment, glacial and tightly buttoned-up the next. A sequence where Fenix romances a musclebound female wrestler is perhaps a misstep, but otherwise the director delights with his baroque invention and his eye for details that seem both jarring and apt – the wilting paper skeletons that litter the street the morning after a party, the floppy-eared animal costume that serves as a body bag for the dead burlesque dancer. Helping to drive these images even deeper is a tangy Latin-flavoured soundtrack of dance numbers and heartfelt laments.
The cast all rise impressively to their vivid, larger-than-life roles. As the tattooed lady, Thelma Tixou is a real eyeful. Her wordless seduction of Orgo – in which she walks backwards on all fours, tasselled bottom in the air – is like the mating ritual of some jungle fancy bird the size of a Christmas turkey. Nor do the members of the Jodorowsky clan who appear in front of the camera in various guises let down their esteemed dad. The result is a movie that is cool, timeless, cheeky, sexy, funny, moving and, despite its risk-taking, totally accessible. Check it out.
You won't regret it.