The Holy Mountain… Where to begin? Alejandro Jodorowsky’s third feature is, simply put, an artistic triumph: a film rife with visual symbolism, striking imagery, comic book colors splattered over grotesque scenes and a layered story of enlightenment and spirituality. The amount of subtext imbued in every frame immediately established Jodorowsky as a genius, and for those who can stomach the ride, The Holy Mountain is one of the most rewarding films in cinema.
That said, the film is thematically overwhelming. Nearly every shot contains some sort of double meaning, a thematic layer interwoven beneath every image. To summarize the plot requires lots of generalization, but at its core, the film tells a story of a search for wisdom. An alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) leads a group of eight people on a spiritual journey to the Holy Mountain, where eight immortal gods rule the universe. There, they plan to overtake the gods and rule the world. This summation, of course, leaves out such notable sequences as an artist creating a sex machine that births a robotic baby, reptiles re-creating the conquest of Mexico, a man’s fecal matter turning into gold and a charming scene in which an army general amasses a collection of one thousand severed testicles.
The film is monumentally dense: a psychedelic and spiritual odyssey of Ben-Hur proportions somehow pulled off on an independent budget. Some would say the film is incomprehensible, that to break it down would seem like trying to topple a mountain with a tiny pickaxe. However, if this were the truth, wouldn’t Jodorowsky have ultimately failed as a filmmaker? No matter how gorgeous his film is, if it is too dense to pull meaning out of, wouldn’t the film be a futile effort? Luckily, this is not the case. Jodorowsky is able to mix motifs and drop hints to create a thoroughly engaging viewing experience. The filmmaker intentionally presents easily accessible symbolism amidst more sophisticated imagery, rewarding multiple viewings. Even upon a first watch, Jodorowsky is careful not to be too alienating, allowing the viewer to enjoy a coherent narrative, while incorporating suggestions at deeper themes waiting to be discovered. The film is simply a treasure trove of surreal delights, a challenge holding tremendous rewards for the adventurous film fanatic.
The Holy Mountain presents a simple message told in a complex way. At its core, the film’s central themes reflect the corrupted nature of mankind and the happiness one can find hidden in life’s simple pleasures. The society Jodorowsky depicts in his film embodies a depraved, anachronistic collision of mankind’s worst traits. Masked soldiers gun down innocent civilians in the street as wealthy tourists mindlessly snap pictures. Religion and sex are bought and sold, but they are ultimately worthless.
Amidst this chaotic world lives our central character, dubbed ‘the Thief,’ who eventually discovers the Alchemist, who tells him of his plan to ascend the Holy Mountain. The Alchemist speaks a crude, yet important message to the Thief: “You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.” The two are joined by seven other followers, who represent society at its most corrupted: Fon, a manufacturer who creates artificial body parts which are sold to “enhance” people’s beauty; Isla is a weapons manufacturer who makes weapons stylish and irresistible to the public; Sel creates children’s toys which inspire hatred and violence within them; Axon, a merciless warmonger; as well as a corrupt political advisor, a shallow millionaire art dealer and a hedonistic architect. The followers represent powerful societal figures at their ugliest, each of which has become disillusioned with their world and seek higher knowledge and power. Along with the Thief and the Alchemist, they shed layers of their past selves away through rigorous physical and spiritual discipline. As they ascend the Holy Mountain, each of them overcomes their greatest fears and learns to exist outside of the physical vessel of their bodies. Clearly, Jodorowsky aims to portray the conquering of human vices through self-discipline, and yet, some of the most important themes only introduce themselves in the film’s final moments.Just before reaching the summit of the mountain, the Alchemist urges the Thief to return home. The turn is surprising, as the most sympathetic character of the film is denied enlightenment after all we have watched him go through. However, on the summit of the mountain, Jodorowsky presents us with a final twist. The followers attempt to overtake the gods of the mountain only to realize they are mannequins, that there were no gods to begin with. The Alchemist gathers his subjects, stares into the camera and exclaims “Zoom back camera!” to reveal a film crew surrounding them. “We came in search of the secret of immortality, to be like Gods. And here we are mortals, more human than ever” the Alchemist speaks, before concluding the film saying “Goodbye to the Holy Mountain. Real life awaits us.” The film’s final moments hold lots of thematic weight while also teetering on the boundaries of the fourth wall.
Jodorowsky, as the Alchemist, speaks to his fictional followers just as he speaks to us, the audience. Those who followed him in a search for enlightenment have come up empty handed: there are no immortal gods, there is no Holy Mountain, there is no secret to happiness. All that awaits us is reality and what we make of it. The ending may be surprisingly downbeat or confusing at first, until one considers the character of the Thief. Throughout the film, the Thief has been our central character, the one we sympathize with the most. We are surprised and confused when he is denied access to the peak of the mountain, until we realize there was nothing there for him. Returning home to the woman he loves, the Thief is in fact the only character who receives happiness from the Alchemist’s teachings. He has transcended the corrupt society he emerged from and has become enlightened in his own way. The Alchemist’s (and Jodorowsky’s) final message need not apply to the Thief, who is able to find happiness in life’s simple pleasures of love, self-discovery and overcoming challenges. For those who seek power and easy answers, there is nothing. In the end, the film’s moral is simple and powerful, executed astutely and elegantly by a master filmmaker.
Yet, we have only scratched the surface of The Holy Mountain. So many more themes are hidden within the film (industry, violence and morality to name a few), and the startlingly beautiful images and deep philosophical questions Jodorowsky is able to conjure up make the film required viewing for anyone serious about filmmaking. Jodorowsky’s masterpiece is simply unlike any film before or since its creation. Words do it no justice—just go watch it.
So long to this analysis. The Holy Mountain awaits us.