❉ Welcome to the ultimate midnight movie experience…
An Alchemist strips two women of their clothes and jewellery and shaves their heads; birds fly from the wounds of massacred civilians; a woman uses an electronic rod to stimulate a giant mechanical vagina into giving birth; toads and lizards recreate the conquest of Mexico. Welcome to the ultimate midnight movie experience…
Filled with Jungian symbolism and inspired by the unfinished novel ‘Mount Analogue’ by Rene Daumal, and ‘The Ascent of Mount Carmal’ by Saint John of the Cross, the film is also influenced by the teachings of Oscar Ichazo’s Arica School, Alchemic and Hermetic traditions, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Tantra, Buddhism, and this being Jodorowsky, the tarot.
It was financed by Beatles producer Allen Klein who had distributed Jodowsky’s ‘El Topo’ (1970) after the pair were introduced by John Lennon. The role of The Thief was offered to George Harrison, who objected to the scene where the character is bathed and his anus is washed. Jodorowsky refused to cut the scene, claiming it would show Harrison’s lack of ego. In the end, Horacio Salinas took the role.
Jodorowsky wrote the screenplay after deliberately going seven continuous days without sleep, then being dosed with LSD and guided on a spiritual journey by Ichazo. The nine-pointed symbol featured in the film as the motif of the mysterious Nine Immortals also comes from Ichazo (and psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo). It’s the Enneagram of Personality based upon the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. Its nine points each correspond with a personality type; Reformer, Helper, Achiever, Individualist, Investigator, Loyalist, Enthusiast, Challenger and Peacemaker.
Later, Jodorowsky would denounce the use of drugs, even within the film itself; in the film, there’s even a scene satirising Timothy Leary.
The ten major characters embody the alchemical aspects of the planets. The seven who are “industrialists and politicians” embody their vices, which must be turned into virtues through a process of enlightenment. Arms manufacturer Isla (Adriana Page), who looks like a lesbian mobster David Bowie and has, “mystical weapons for Buddhists, Jews, and Christians,” tells us, “My name is Isla. My planet is Mars.” Vain polygamist and artificial face manufacturer Fon (Juan Ferrara) is Venus. Materialistic, bottom-obsessed maker of mass produced art and Love Machine inventor Klen (Burt Kleiner) is Jupiter. Exploiter of children and the elderly, mistress of psychological warfare, and manufacture of war toys Sel (Valerie Jodorowsky) is Saturn, bringer of death. Depraved computer genius, giant toilet owner, special advisor to the president, and holocaust initiator Berg (Nicky Nichols) is Uranus. Chief of police, cult leader, and testicle collector Axon (Richard Rutowski), is Neptune, a hyper-masculine barbarian Nazi. Finally, there’s greedy architect, paedophile, and coffin-sized apartment salesman Lut (Luis Lomeli) who is Pluto.
The only enlightened character at the film’s commencement is The Alchemist (Jodorowsky himself), whose planet is, naturally, the sun, Sol, around which everything revolves. He already has one disciple; The Written Woman (Zamira Saunders), his mysterious companion whose near-nude body is covered in Kabbalistic sighs and who wears the symbols of Mercury, the messenger.
The Thief is equated with both The Moon (traditionally feminine, but, as with Mars and Venus, Jodorowsky gender swaps the character, gender being something he often plays with) and The Fool card in tarot. We first see him passed out drunk, covered in flies, and with The Fool card lying beside him; he’s the unenlightened man at the start of his journey, oblivious to danger. A Limbless Man shuffles over and awakens him by securing him to a T-shaped cross and having naked boys with green-painted genitals stone him. Enraged, the Thief is placated by vice in the form of marijuana, offered by The Limbless Man, who wears earrings symbolising Luna. He is the man’s spiritual side; they are two aspects of the same being.
The Thief, initially set up as the hero, spends the first act of the film labouring under the delusion he is a Christ-like profit, picking up disciples in the form of identically dressed prostitutes aged from 8 to 80. The most beautiful of these, a Mary Magdalene figure, is forever accompanied by an embodiment of constant male attention, a chimpanzee. The Thief goes through several adventures, but is constantly thwarted by his own vices, allowing himself to be plied with drink and used as human mould to make thousands of life-sized Christ figures, or tempted into abandoning his friends by a literal lure of gold, whereupon he rides a giant fish hook up the Alchemist’s tower (actually one of the Torres de Satélite). Once in the Alchemist’s domain he his shown that gold is worthless in an unforgettable sequence during which his shit is transmuted into gold. “You are excrement,” says the Alchemist. “You can change yourself into gold.” He is told, “The tarot will teach you how to create a soul.”
Only once the characters are assembled at his tower does the Alchemist reveals his intentions; he has located the mythical Holy Mountain, mentioned in manuscripts of various denominations across the centuries; at its peak are Nine Immortals (based on the Knight of Heliopolis). He proposes that they raid it, and steel the secret of immortality. But first, they must achieve enlightenment. He shows them a picture of The Nine Immortals in an ancient Rosicrucian manuscript. They are sat around a table at the nine points of an Enneagram.
Of course, it’s gaining enlightenment that’s important, rather than the quest itself. The second half of the film blurs fiction and documentary, as the actors as much as their characters, visit real sacred sites and encounter genuine gurus to go through the gruelling process of destroying their egos, mourning their own deaths and confronting their worst fears. Some of these scenes are genuinely traumatic.
When they reach the foot of the mountain, they’re tempted to join the perpetual partying of those who gave up at the last hurdle in favour of fame and hedonism on offer at the the Pantheon Bar, which stands in a huge graveyard. The pilgrims reject it all, and while they do reach their goal, The Thief chooses a different way to reach immortality, and the remaining nine unveil ultimate reality.
‘The Holy Mountain’ was meant to change the world, but after Jodorowsky ran out on Klein’s proposed big budget pornographic adaptation of ‘The Story of O,’ the film was withdrawn from circulation and the two didn’t speak for 30 years. Fortunately, Klein’s son and daughter affected a reconciliation between them and both ‘The Holy Mountain’ and ‘El Topo’ are now widely available in beautifully restored editions. Much is made of the fact that Jodorowsky’s proposed 14-hour 70mm adaptation of Dune was never made. Perhaps it is human nature to long for things we don’t have, but we should be cherishing the masterpieces he has given us, and, in his 80s, continues to give us; graphic novels like the ‘The Incal,’ essential books like ‘The Way of the Tarot,’ the restoration of the original Tarot Deck of Marseilles, or his newer cinematic works like ‘Dance of Reality’ (2013) and ‘Endless Poetry’ (2016).
‘The Holy Mountain’ may not have changed the world, but no can see the world the same way after watching it.
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.