In the recent, delightful what-if? documentary "Jodorowksy's Dune," the Chilean-born filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowksy was the subject of an enticing question. What if the notorious underground director behind "El Topo" and other midnight-movie affronts to timid good taste had realized his dream project, a big-budget Hollywood studio version of the Frank Herbert novel eventually adapted by David Lynch?
Jodorowsky's "Dune" was not meant to be. But now, the 85-year-old provocateur has returned with his first feature film in 23 years, an autobiographical melee called "The Dance of Reality," now at the Music Box Theatre. It's exasperating, excessive, antic and, in a restlessly flamboyant way, reflective. It is one man looking back at his own childhood, and his parents, and imagining strange new worlds for them to conquer.
We are all connected by "a web of suffering and pleasure," Jodorowsky tells us in his movie. He's actually in it: Although Jeremias Herskovits portrays Alejandro as a child growing up in the northern Chilean coastal town of Tocopilla, writer-director Jodorowsky himself appears as himself, comforting his younger self on screen, providing poetic observations while the parade of suffering and pleasure continues with the years.
With strong comic brio the director's grown son, Brontis Jodorowsky, portrays Jodorowsky's father, a firebrand Communist who looked, dressed, sported a mustache and ideologically lived and breathed like his idol, Joseph Stalin. In the film, which owes a considerable debt to Fellini's "Amarcord," this man, Jaime, is married to Sara (Pamela Flores), who expresses herself like an operatic soprano, never speaking but always singing her lines. Well, to amend that: She expresses herself like an soprano in a Jodorowsky film, meaning she's frequently nude and in one sequence smears her young son in black makeup, head to toe, and invites him to chase her around the house.
The Jodorowskys endure a torrent of anti-Semitic slurs from their Tocopilla neighbors; young Alejandro ends up in a coffin with the burn-victim fatality of a local fire; that corpse engages him, briefly, in a conversation; and the film unfolds that way, throwing itself against every available wall to see what sticks. Jaime's obsession with assassinating Chilean president Carlos Ibenez (Bastian Bodenhofer) leads to him becoming assigned to take care of the president's beloved horse. This is one of many picaresque episodes in his hapless life. Jodorowsky, in his blunt fashion, is trying to see his father for what he was (a macho tyrant) but also for what he became over time (a thinking, feeling man capable of real love).
"The Dance of Reality" owes as much to Latin-American absurdism and surrealism from the stage as it does to the movies; when the town citizens drift by wearing implacable masks, you may think you've wandered into a 1960s experimental theatrical production. A lot of the film doesn't quite click, either as dream imagery or something more conventional. But there's a spirit and a yearning in it that's undeniable and bracing.
"The Dance of Reality" - 3 stars
No MPAA rating (nudity, violence, torture)
Running time: 2:10; in Spanish with English subtitles
Plays: Friday-Thursday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.