And now for something completely different– Pls be advised: This is easily the longest and most obscure piece I’ve written on RAB. At times it begins to approach academia, but in the end is stricken back down to its rightful place in low culture by its own ridiculous and digressive nature. In other words, check out the cool pictures below, and then take yr business elsewhere.
“You can’t atone for your sins with nightmares.”
-Concha, Santa Sangre
“And there, in the height of the frenzy, we feel the vertigo: it is then that death seduces us.”
-Octavia Paz, excerpt from “Todos Santos, Día de Muertos”
Friends have been telling me I needed to watch (and would obviously love) Italian-Mexican film Santa Sangre since the beginning of time (aka since I was 15… so you know, 10 years.) It finally happened.
Apparently my idea of what this film was all about was tremendously off. I had in my mind that it was experimental and all about hallucinations (which it is) but I imagined it in sort of a surrealist, even psychedelic way that would be trip me out with its colourful and fantastical ‘70s goodness.
Um, false? First of all, the word “good” has nothing to do with Santa Sangre. It’s basically an extremely fucked up horror film. Upon realizing this about 20 minutes in, I considered saving it for “another time” since I was watching it alone and don’t necessarily do well with disturbing images/narratives by myself. But since my best friend was sleeping over later that night, I decided to dive in and figured she could pick up the pieces from my post-horrific experience.
As it turns out, I did like it. It’s a story about a boy named Fenix who grew up in a seedy and supernatural Mexican circus troupe. Fenix’s mother, Concha, is a trapeze artist who also leads a religious cult that worships a girl-saint with no arms. His father is the ringmaster, not to mention an all-around skeevy fellow. The key Fenix-is-gonna-be-tormented-for-life scene occurs when his mother discovers his father lecherously approaching “the tattooed lady”- who is lying on a bed with her legs spread and poised above her head. Seeing this, Concha promptly grabs what I assume is a bottle of sulphuric acid and hurls it on the father’s groin. He then pins the mother to the circus knife-throwing board and hacks off both of her arms (blood spraying everywhere, obviously.) Then the father- seriously the grossest site you’ve ever seen- naked, fat, bleeding profusely from the crotch, stumbles outside and right in front of his son and a girl-mime, slits his throat and topples to the ground. Oh, and then some dogs come up and start licking up the pool of blood.
So that’s cool. Fenix grows up to be a seriously fucked up dude, and the movie includes way more disturbing scenes like that one. I won’t go into those, but I WILL analyse Santa Sangre in a very specific way that seems to me the only way to think about it. (But I’m generally kind of off about shit, so bear that in mind.)
The point is, I can’t even think about this movie without also obsessively considering its relationship to a collection of essays called El Laberinto de la Soledad. Written by Octavio Paz and originally published in 1950, the works are about Mexican identity- both national and individual. “Los Hijos de la Malinche” and “Máscaras Mexicanas” both tie in to Santa Sangre rather well, but for the sake of time and not wanting to COMPLETELY alienate my readers, I’m going to focus on examining the movie in terms of just one essay- “Todos Santos, Día de Muertos.”
The basic idea posited in “Todos Santos, Día de Muertos” is that in Mexicans’ propensity to “festejar” (celebrate), they abandon societal norms, give in to violence, absurdity and chaos, and ultimately transcend the border between life and death. While engaging in ridiculous social violations, including drunkenness, promiscuity, and even murder, people “abandonan su rasgo humano,” that is, cast off their human rank, becoming anonymous archetypes engaged in total lunacy and disorder.
Likewise, most of Santa Sangre deals with characters engaged in similar debauchery or revelry- cocaine, prostitution, tattooing, dancing, fighting, hallucinating, and other alternatives to “reality.” Paz explains such actions saying, “The explosive, dramatic, even suicidal manner in which we strip ourselves, surrender ourselves, is evidence that something inhibits and suffocates us. Something impedes us from being. And since we cannot or dare not confront our own selves, we resort to the fiesta. It fires us into the void; it is a drunken rapture that burns itself out, a pistol shot in the air, a skyrocket.” Perhaps Jodorowsky had similar ideas about the human condition: people lead mostly lonely and meaningless lives, and transgression is essentially a form of rebellion against that vacuity and solitude.
Violence and sin become means toward something communal for people desperately seeking a connection. In Santa Sangre, Fenix at one point becomes so obsessed with his armless mother that she controls both his mind and body, under her spell, he enters trance-like states, slaughtering countless young women at Concha’s demand. It’s not in Fenix’s nature to be homicidal, but hypnotized and trauma-stricken, he can’t deny his co-dependency with his mother, so he chooses to live in a world of performance and delusion- a world of fiesta, as Paz would describe it.
Death, more specifically, is a transcendent experience- not just beyond the meaninglessness of life, but also beyond the delusions, base urges, and desire to festejar. There is definitely an abundance of death (and murder) in Santa Sangre. And, well this gets a little fucked up now, but Paz talks about how the relationship between murderer and victim is what humanizes murder. More so than any other form of transgression seen in the film, death is really the only way to transcend the pointlessness and truly break the existential cycle of life. Describing murder, Paz says, “Hence its drama, its poetry, and- why not say it?- its grandeur.” Glorifying murder? Sure, but it’s at least an interesting idea.
It’s also worth noting that the idea of Mexican fiesta and the plot of Santa Sangre both deal with subversive religious sects. Twisted, bastardized forms of Catholicism (popular religiousity) that provide just enough of a “higher purpose” to justify the people’s depraved binges and carnage. Fenix as a young man def has the whole Christ-like thing going on, which would support both the author and filmmaker’s glorification of the murderer. I actually don’t necessarily think of it a criticism of religion on the part of either Jodorowsky or Paz- just another manifestation of how life and death / the afterlife are intimately connected.
As the viewer, I’ll throw out there that I watched Santa Sangre, and like the brilliant colors and cacophony of fiesta, for me it served as a sort of reverse from gloom and complacency. I also loved all the weirdos in the film (sorry, not necessarily weird, just people typically on the margins of society)- obese whores, tattooed performers, midgets, schizos, mutes, trannies, circus folk, etc. It’s like Paz says of fiesta: “Anything is permitted: the customary hierarchies vanish, along with all social, sex, caste and trade distinctions. Men become women, gentlemen become slaves, the poor become rich.” Realizing their own absurd identities doesn’t give way to individuality, but rather promotes total LOSS of identity in cool way that equalizes everyone. Reminds me of SF communities more than a little.
On that note, I’m done. That whole thing was a stretch, eh? Watch the trailer below and buy Santa Sangre at Severin Films.
Also, get pumped for Jodorowsky’s new, autobiographical film, La Danza de la Realidad, which he is currently filming in Chile and which he has said he “hopes he loses money from.” (Promising, right?)