HCF REWIND NO.75: SANTA SANGRE [Mexico/Italy 1989]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU RAY: 5th November
RUNNING TIME: 118 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A naked figure sits in a tree in a white room. This is the deeply troubled Fenix. He remembers his childhood, which he spent performing as a child magician in a circus run by his father, a knife-thrower and his mother, a trapeze artist and aerialist. His only friends were an elephant who sadly died, Aladin a midget, and a girl called Alma. When his mother lost her arms and his father perished in a fight over the father’s mistress the Tattooed Woman, Fenix was traumatised so much he spent over a decade in a mental asylum. Now, Fenix is let out, on a field trip to a movie theatre along with some other patients, and espies the Tattooed Woman. That night, back in the asylum, Fenix’s armless mother calls out to him from the street and he escapes by climbing down his cell window. The Tattooed Woman is murdered and Fenix returns to the circus, reuniting with Aladin and accompanied by his mother, with whom he puts on a new act…..
It’s hard to always pinpoint the moment, that moment, when you realise that you have fallen in love with the film you are watching and know that has become one of your favourites. Sometimes the opening credits or scene is enough. Sometimes it takes almost half the film for you to realise it has cast a most wondrous spell. I can’t remember when it was during Santa Sangre that I had that revelatory, transformative moment, but it was definitely a most extraordinary experience. It’s hard to sum up Santa Sangre. My old video had the words “David Lynch goes to the circus” on the front, which isn’t bad, I suppose, and I’m sure I once read one review which called it “Federico Fellini meets Dario Argento”. Both descriptions sound like they are of a most enticing film but don’t really do it justice, though they both make it clear that this is a movie for the adventurous film watcher, the film watcher who wants to explore strange new worlds.
Santa Sangre is astoundingly surreal, a parade of audacious images both beautiful and ugly, and yet it’s also an incredibly compelling story. It’s extremely disturbing, taking viewers into the mind of a character they may not want to enter the mind of, and yet it’s also very touching. It has the feel of a dream, yet it also says a lot about the human mind. It’s as full of metaphors and symbolism as any intellectual could want, but you don’t need to understand all that you see, because the imagery has the power to bypass the thinking parts of the brain and hit you on a primal level. It’s horrible and brutal, but is also full of compassion and love. It has echoes of many other films, some horror, some not, but paradoxically there really isn’t a film like it. The film usually ended up categorised in the ‘horror’ section in video shops, and you could certainly call it a horror film, but it’s not really frightening. It will, though, probably stay with you months after the details of the last ghost or slasher picture you saw at the cinema have been forgotten. You may hate Santa Sangre. Many do. For me personally, the film touches my soul deeply, and I’m well aware that this could be a controversial statement when describing a film when the hero is, amongst other things, a murderer, transvestite and necrophiliac!
Strange as it may seem, Santa Sangre is actually a little more conventional than Chilean director/co-writer Alejandro Jodorowsky’s other major films. Jodorowsky remains one of cinema’s true originals, though he only really dabbled in film as he was also a playwright, actor, author, comic writer and spiritual guru! His experimental, avant-garde approach to filmmaking resulted in three brilliantly audacious works; Fando And Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the latter of which for me is one of the great works of art in cinema and a genuine mystical experience. Such weird and wonderful stuff was never destined for more than cult status though what many people don’t know is that in the 80’s Jodorowsky tried his hand three times at more ‘normal’ filmmaking. Tusk and The Rainbow Thief disappeared into obscurity but Santa Sangre got a decent release and even, alone among Jodorowksy’s films, made money. I suppose it’s the midpoint between his 70’s and his other 80’s work, placing Jodorowsky’s startling imagery and crazy imagination on something resembling a conventional plot. Santa Sangre was actually inspired by a Mexican serial killer called Gregorio Henandez. Hernandez murdered three prostitutes and one female student in 1942, was sentenced for life and became both a major celebrity and totally rehabilitated, including even marrying and having four kids. Freed in 1976, it was a chance meeting in a bar with Jodorowsky that inspired him to make the film. The director says producer Claudio Argento, brother of Dario and producer of many of his movies, just wanted to make “a film about a man who kills lots of women”.
Well Fenix the ‘hero’ certainly kills lots of women, and yet he remains sympathetic. This is partly due to the first third, which details the painful events that made him the person who we see in the asylum and who shouldn’t really have been let out. No other film to me has shown as well both the beauty and the ugliness of the circus or better exploited its strangeness. The early scenes of Santa Sangre cast a hypnotic spell; even if you don’t enjoy what you are watching, I doubt you’ll be able to tear yourself away, and actually there are moments of loveliness in there, especially concerning the growing love of Fenix and Alma, which happens entirely without dialogue. The sadness of Fenix’s early life is detailed in a heartbreaking manner, and usually with a small band of musicians playing in the background, like Greek chorus without words, changing the mood of the music according to what is happening on screen. There are scenes of simply startling impact like an elephant’s funeral where the huge coffin of the dead animal is tipped into a garbage dump in a huge valley and starving scavengers tear into it, pulling bits off the creature to eat. Others, like Fenix’s father throwing knives at the Tattooed Woman, who is sexually aroused by it, seem designed to correlate sex with violence in a way which really does seem a little depraved, but this is the kind of film Santa Sangre is, it’s a window into the crazy soul of its creator, and by the way he himself admits it was inspired by his own childhood and unresolved relationships with his parents.
After some shockingly gruesome mutilation and death, we return to Fenix’s current state and begin a small section of the film which is almost documentary in style, as Fenix integrates with the children in the asylum and goes on a trip with them, the trip which will set him on his murderous rampage. The kids nearly all have Down’s Syndrome and are played by actual children with the condition, and some might find the scenes of them being given cocaine by a pimp more disturbing than anything else in the picture. Jodorowsky dares us to enjoy seeing this, because he stages a wonderful sequence when the kids are bouncing along the street to music and are joined by more and more pimps, prostitutes and other low-lives in what becomes a virtual musical number. In most other films, such a scene would probably seem out of place, but in this one it fits perfectly. And then, Fenix espies the Tattooed Woman, and everything changes. Summoned by Concha his mother, he escapes the asylum and goes back to the circus. He is now under Concha’s control, often walking and sitting behind here with his arms thrust through the sleeves of her dresses, so that his hands do her bidding. Their nightclub act is a thing of beauty, but Fenix is now a killer of anyone whom he finds sexually attractive.
An extremely bloody early kill resembles an early Dario Argento set piece with its stylised lighting and the way it is shot, and Argento’s influence can be seen elsewhere in the film’s camerawork, use of colour and psychosexual imagery, though Santa Sangre goes further than any Argento movie did with the last aspect. What is amazing is that the BBFC passed the film uncut in the UK when far tamer pictures required the use of their scissors. In the US though two scenes were cut down drastically to get an ‘R’ rating, though sometimes what the film suggests is more disturbing than what it actually shows. One scene clearly gives us the information that Fenix has sex with his dead victims without showing it explicitly. Others are of a more surreal bent as we seem to be shown inside Fenix’s mind. One incredibly haunting scene has Fenix’s dead victims rise out of where they have been buried, all painted white. Of course there are bits which don’t seem essential. There’s a moment where a man comes up to a character just to rip off his own ear. This person actually turned up to the shoot unannounced and asked to be in the film. His little scene may be unnecessary, but I’m glad it’s there.
There’s a healthy element of black humour, like the sight of Fenix pulling a huge snake out if his trousers, or Fenix trying to kill a wrestler he is fascinated with and constantly being got the better of. And occasionally, we slow down for moments of pathos. There is a scene where Fenix and his mother sing a song together whilst playing the piano, and it’s so beautiful and touching that it almost makes me cry just thinking about it. I should mention that the performances all throughout hit the right notes, especially from Axel Jodorowksy [Alejandro’s son] as Fenix. Just look at the way he moves his arms exactly like a woman in some scenes. The climax is maybe rather low-key and was actually originally intended to be a larger-scale scene, but the real ending is afterwards, with a twist that won’t be a surprise to many but may hit you emotionally. I’m not going to tell you exactly how things end, but you will probably feel happy and sad at the same time. I personally never fail to be affected by it in a way it’s almost impossible to describe. The last thing you see is actually a quote from the Bible and it seems to be used both ironically and seriously.
This is a good place to say that, like all good Surrealists, Jodorowsky shows his suspicion of religion throughout. Early on, Concha is the leader of a cult which seems to be a bastardised form of Roman Catholicism, and throughout the film plays with religious imagery. The influences on this one-of-a-kind masterpiece are many. You will probably think of Psycho and perhaps the story The Hands Of Orlac which was filmed several times but best as Mad Love. Freaks, in fact much of Tod Browning’s earlier work too. Viewing the film last night again for this review, I kept thinking of the Venus de Milo. What Jodorowksy does is what all great artists do; they assimilate influences and out of them create something new. Santa Sangre is a work of art, with every ingredient combining into a perhaps-not-exactly-unified but totally and utterly wondrous whole of which the cinema has rarely seen since, and I know I haven’t spared much time to talk about the fantastic soundtrack which combines Simon Boswell’s evocative score with Mexican songs. The sight of young Fenix, tearful and helpless, banging against the window of the caravan he has been locked in as he watches his parents tear each other to bits. Alma raising her arms towards the murderous Fenix. Fenix trying to ‘become’ the Invisible Man. Thankyou, Mr Jodorowsky, for giving me a film of such richness and of such profound emotion that, whenever I come home disappointed with the latest trash I’ve sat through at the cinema, all I need to do is watch a few seconds of Santa Sangre and I am again happy.
The new R2 Blu Ray and DVD from Mr Bongo both contain;