Mind Blowing Movies: El Topo (1970), by Antero Alli

Mm200This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. -- Mark

Mind Blowing Movies: El Topo (1970), by Antero Alli

[Video Link] The first film to truly blow my mind was Jodorowsky's El Topo, which I saw soon after its release in the early '70s. Up until then I assumed that all films were made for entertainment purposes only. However, as a twenty-something, former acidhead living in Berkeley, California, my young mind was freshly imprinted to remain open to the symbolic levels of existence. Whether the "meaning" behind things whispered cosmic secrets to me or whether I made it all up mattered very little; what mattered to me was the freedom to not take everything so literally.

In the first ten minutes of this movie, I saw right away that if I viewed El Topo in any literalist way, I would experience it as a mediocre spaghetti western, softcore quasi-snuff film. But after I shifted into a more symbolist way of seeing, the film unfolded before my eyes like an animated magical Kaballah.

The main character was now The Ego on a spiritual journey to encounter and defeat four "masters," which revealed themselves to me as Body, Heart, Intellect, and Spirit. In this story, the Ego defeats the first three masters but is unexpected and indirectly defeated by Spirit. The Ego undergoes a death and awakens underground inside a hollow mountain filled with deformed humans that I saw as the Subconscious filled with distorted repressions of our human condition. Here, the Ego undergoes a series of initiatic encounters that leave him humbled and transformed. That's not the end of the movie but really, the beginning -- it just got better and better after that.

I was utterly astonished, no, gobsmacked, by how the filmmaker seemed to be using cinema as a tool or device for altering perception and expanding consciousness and doing that without being preachy or timid. This was some hard-hitting, metaphysical voodoo visionary shit disguised as a mediocre spaghetti western, softcore quasi-snuff film! Was it Jodorowsy's brilliance or my own brilliance for seeing his film this way? Impossible to say -- unless I asked Alexjandro Jodorowsky himself.

In the many interviews I've read of Jodorowsy discussing El Topo, I've never come across anything about him mentioning these interpretations haunting my psyche yet he speaks freely about his cinema acting as a drug and as a means for transforming consciousness. What really blew my mind about El Topo was not all the mysticism and the stunningly original cinematography but how the film left me with a new way of seeing which, for me, was synonymous with "changing my life." Twenty years after seeing El Topo, I began my own filmmaking trajectory inspired by this same vision of using cinema as a means of transmission for initiating audiences into new ways of seeing -- a direction informing my filmmaking processes ever since.


  1. I will never forget the naked kid and his father riding a horse through a river of blood. A good thing to see this masterpiece on bluray

  2. I respect early Jodorowsky work (El Topo, The Sacred Mountain). It’s mindblowing. But his more recent “career” as a tarot reader and self appointed “guru”… well, not so much. 

      1.  I couldn’t get very far in Santa Sangre – the whole thing with the elephant and some other things I think my mind has blocked.

  3. Hell yeah!  As good as “The Wild Bunch” and “McCabe & Mrs Miller” are, for pure bang for your anti-western buck, nothing comes close to “El Topo”.

    Too bad this was in the greedy, spiteful, slimy hands of Allen Klein for so long, Christ was an asshole!

  4. I remember renting this out years ago when I was living with some squares.  We were watching the trailer first, and one of my flatmates asked what kind of film it was.  I didn’t even want to try to explain, so I just said “It’s a western”, figuring that would suffice at least until the freaky shit started.
    That very instant, the narrator of the trailer goes:
    Caught red-handed.

    1. I love that interview almost as much as I love everything this man has done… Well not Tusk. 

  5. As great as El Topo was, The Holy Mountain caused twice as many brain explosions. I think the cinematography and sets lured me in more than the endless desert (even with phallic cacti). Of course, the movie that really would have blown us all to pure brain bits would have been Jodorowski’s Dune. We need a kickstarter project to 1) build a time machine and 2) go back and fund the remainder of the movie.

  6. Antero, I want to thank you for introducing me to this film on the Art Ship so many years ago. It is indeed a mind-blowing film. I’m glad you’re able to post here and share it with so many others.

    As an aside, I once looked up the reviews of this film to see what critics were saying about it. As with all great art, some people think it is absolutely brilliant and others think it completely horrendous. The reasons people give for not liking it are awfully revealing, and an object of curiosity all in themselves.

  7. I remember seeing this on the big screen as a little kid. I was maybe five or six, with my mother, in a cinema full of pysch majors. This could be why I find Batmans, Starwars, and other “blockbusters” boring. “El Topo” is awesome. It should be required viewing for all pre-teens. And, it should be said, you need to see it on a big screen, anything under a drive-in would be unjust.

  8. I also saw this at Berkeley, probably the same time Alli did. It was the first movie of a double feature in a little theater off campus. I remember the subdued but restless audience, the polite but puzzled attention given the screen, the silence at its ending, my date’s quiet and to me inexplicable tears…

    and then the audience eruption of loud cheering as the opening credits of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West flashed on the screen.  

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