As the film opens, we see a sissy-type young boy Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) being grabbed by the scruff of his neck by his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky real life son), to have his lady's hair cut off at the local barber, how he's forbidden any contact with any person associated with Catholicism or even Buddhism because Jaime is an atheistic Communist, and wanted to train little Alejandro to resist his natural reactions by having his sole, armpit, nose and ears tickled by a feather, being slapped without a murmur and having his teeth taken out without anaesthetics because according to him, a man must be strong in will and be able to resist all kinds of pains and sensations to achieve his ideal. Jaime worships Stalin and detests Ibanez, the Fascist Chilean dictator. There is nothing Jaime wants more than to assassinate Ibanez and bring about a communist paradise in Chile. He tries to do so by becoming Ibanez's stable boy. But his principles went to pieces at the moment of realization of his dream: for some reason, his hands suddenly became paralyzed at the moment when his fingers were at the trigger of the gun he had secretly been carrying expressly for that purpose, upon seeing Ibanez lying upon the side of his favorite horse Bucephalus, crying like a child because it was so sick and he knew that much against his wishes, he had to put it out of misery by shooting it. Jaime simply could not bring himself to pull the trigger. He realized then that they both shared a common humanity. From that moment, both his two hands had become locked in that position. I can't resist thinking of how the young Communist protagonist Hugo behaved when he actually confronted in person the capitalist leader Hoederer whom he was ordered by the Communist party to murder but whom he found a quite amiable character in real life in J P Sartre's existentialst drama, the Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands)
All his life, Jaime had wanted to become a hero, to liberate Chile from dictatorship. On the face of it, he's all strength, will and discipline but when his son starts begging him for a favor, his heart softens. He gives his son a pair of very expensive red shoes which have been on display at his clothing shop for a long time, but something which his son promptly gives away to a shoeshine boy at the village of El Tocopilla when the latter sighs that he could never be able to have such a pair of shoes his entire life. Ironically, when the shoeshine boy runs to the beach with his new found possession, he's drowned as a result.
Everything in this film seems to happen magically: we see the young Alejandro creating a tsunami by throwing a stone at the sea but which instead of drowning people, brought a sea of sardines raining from the sky. We see Jaime miraculously saved from leprosy by his wife's piss after he contracted the plague from a group of passing lepers shortly after he tried to play the hero by giving them water when the mayor of the town ordered that the town be barricaded against their entry and had soldiers train their guns at the unwelcome group if they were to cross the line. He came back a broken man because instead of being grateful to him for giving them the water they craved, out of unbearable hunger, they ate his donkey alive and passed their disease to them. We see him hitting some Fascists down simply by making as if he were hitting them without actually touching any of them after the latter ordered him to extend his locked fingers to salute their Fascist leader and he told them he could not do so and disbelieving him, they started to assault him.
The film's images and techniques are exaggerated and are heavy with symbolic meaning but in the context of surrealism, they somehow never seem inappropriate. On the contrary, they serve to enhance the visual impact of the film. Sara cured Alejandro's fear of the dark by smearing him and herself with shoeblack and asking Alejandro to dance in the dark naked with her because she says that when we are as dark as darkness, there is nothing more to fear from darkness itself. We see striking images of a group of people in black clothes and umbrellas, marching against the bare bleak mountains of Chile, like ghosts across the land. Perhaps these people are the living symbols of the injustices in Chilean society at the time, a disease which rendered them inhuman, both physically and spiritually.
In the end, Jaime was saved, not by Fascism nor by Communism but by love, symbolized by his wife, Sara ( Pamlea Flores), a well-formed lady, whose enormous breasts literally and physically overflow with understanding, tolerance, forgiveness, care and concern for her husband and son and who seems unable to speak in plain ordinary language but has to communicate in operatic verses. At the start of the film, Jodorowsky also makes skillful use the circus clowns to make fun of Jaime by mocking him with sarcastic language apparently spoken in "jest" about his big projects and his heroism . And from time to time, the director even appears in person at the back of the young Alejandro, his hands upon Alejandro's shoulders, to give him guidance on what he should do, rather like a guardian angel, telling him e.g. that what's most valuable in a man's life can't be found outside of himself but lies deep within his own heart: love and from it his basic humanity.
Jodorowsky also makes use of three Christ-like figures who teach Jaime the value of humility and service: the old stable boy of Ibanez, who after teaching Jaime everything he needed to learn about how to care for Bucephalus e.g. speaking to the animal from his heart and treating him with love, he asked to be put into the grave; the midget lady who found him wandering in the streets, sheltered him and nursed him back to health until he recovered his memory and who feeling that her mission in life was accomplished ended her own life by hanging herself, the old carpenter who gave food and shelter to Jaime after the woman died and gave him work and eventually money for him to return to his wife and son and who upon delivering 100 chairs to the church school felt that he too had done all he could in life and collapsed during the celebration for those chairs. Like his son, Jaime gave all he had to the priest when he discovered that the collection the priest asked those present to give for the funeral of the old man was not sufficient to give the old carpenter a decent burial.
His wife Sara seem to believe in miracles and she was right. She believes in the real miracle, the miracle of love. When Alejandro expressed fear that his father might never come back for them, she asked him to to make a wish on a rock that their father would come back. Alejandro did as he was told and she tied the little rock to several balloons which drifted into the sky and before long, lo and behold, Jaime was conveyed back home by an ambulance of the new government because the Communists had succeeded to overthrow Ibanez and Jaime was treated as a hero because he resisted all kinds of tortures by the Fascists. But his hands remained paralyzed. He did not recover until Sara asked him to shoot at a photo, not of Stalin, not of Ibanez but of himself whereupon, all three images went up in fire. As if by magic, after he pulled the trigger, he returned to his true self, a human being with a heart, his locked fingers, frozen by will, magically regains their natural flexibility. As the film ends, their family is seen standing at the back of a boat, leaving the town for a new life and the dwarfish clown we find introducing the circus at the start of the film was sitting in front of Jaime's shop announcing another new programme of the his circus. .
It is a remarkable film. It is an unforgettable film. It is a fantastic film. It is remarkable and unforgettable and fantastic because of the stunning surrealistic visual imagery of Alejandro Jodorowsky created and because of the bold and innovative ways he used in the film to tell his own story, mixing elements of realism with surrealism: full of deformed people: mutilated soldiers and midgets and lepers, perhaps Jodorowsky's image of Chilean society of his childhood? And the story is told as if it were a Greek epic, complete with an omniscient narrator and sometimes chorus and deus ex machina and magic. It's a tale of self-discovery, a pilgrimage to the past both of his father and of the director himself, a sort of personal odyssey of classical proportions yet strangely contemporary, a series of larger than life metaphors of the themes animating his childhood: his tyrannic father and his loving mother in the political idioms of the time: the struggle between the very masculine and purely rational ideologies of fascism and communism in a predominantly Catholic Chile in the tiny seaside town of Tocopilla, where the director passed 10 years of his childhood. He does cinema like a poet, not just a run of the mill film maker. He is a true master of the cinematic art. Seeing his film is a bit like seeing Fellini at the height of his creativity. It's a film of striking beauty. For him, the dance of reality is really the dance of imagination about such a reality in the minds and above all in the hearts of man. But it seems too that the film is literally a family affair: almost all his family are involved in the production of the film in one way or another: Adan Jodorowsky played the communist anarchist, Axel Jodorowsky as the Cristobal Jodorowsky, the Theosophist at the start of the film. Though shot in digital video, his use of color is truly impressive.The 84-year-old cinematic legend won him the South Award as best director in the Oslo Film Festival.