By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 18, 2013 at 10:58AM
In the opening minutes of "The Dance of Reality," cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky's first movie in 23 years, he appears onscreen reciting a poem that compares money to blood, Christ and Buddha, then equates death to consciousness and wealth. It's that combination of evocative prose and bizarre associations that define the director's appeal, which stretches back to the glory days of his midnight movie stardom with "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain." While lacking their polished lunacy, "The Dance of Reality" maintains the gonzo spirit of its creator, virtually emerging directly from his psyche.
The movie finds Jodorowsky reteaming with French producer Michel Seydoux, with whom the director collaborated on a famously ambitious, uncompleted adaptation of "Dune" (a story told in the documentary "Jodorowsky's Dune," premiering at Cannes' Directors Fortnight section alongside the new work). In contrast to that costly endeavor, "The Dance of Reality" is a noticeably small, unapologetically messy, diary-like ode to his upbringing. Jodorowsky adapts his memoir of the same name in addition to elements of another book, "The Boy of Black Wednesday," in which he imagined a scenario that found his father scheming to kill Chilean president Carlos Ibañez del Campo as part of a communist plot.
Those ingredients remain intact against a landscape of visually audacious eccentricities: mean-spirited clowns, a gang of wily amputees, and a beggar clad in face paint populate the impoverished village where the young Jodorowsky (Jeremias Herskovits) lives a frantic life under the strict guidance of his father, Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, Alejandro's son). Jaime's parenting skills are enacted with cartoonish extremes, including a scene in which he slaps his son repeatedly to force the scrawny boy to man up, eventually knocking out one of his teeth. But while Jaime's own journey toward improving his behavior lies ahead, Alejandro's mother casts the boy a sympathetic eye -- and exclusively sings her lines in operatic verse.
Meanwhile, the real-life Jodorowsky (now in his eighties), hovers in and out of various scenes draped in black to guide them along. In this regard, one gets the sense of the director guiding audiences through this chaotic world, never letting it drift too far from his personal connection. Jodorowsky's other son, Adan, provides a poignant score that strengthens the movie's sense of wonder.
Make no mistake: "The Dance of Reality" is all over the place. Sometimes it's gloriously entertaining, but at 130 minutes the loose surrealism occasionally grows tiresome. Many of the Fellini-esque flourishes, particularly the macabre take circus imagery, harken back to Jodorowsky's similarly twisted "Santa Sangre," but "The Dance of Reality" trades a more conventional narrative technique for constant digressions for the sake of his outlandish convictions about the persistence of hope amid political turmoil.
That ingredient comes into play when Brontis leaves home on an ambitious assassination attempt that finds him enduring a series of lyrical misadventures. Among them: Burying one man alive upon request and briefly committing himself to a church in spite of his atheistic beliefs. Back home, Alejandro and his mother attempt to remain happy with their own restricted world, with the singing women at one point painting her son in black and stripping nude for a borderline incestuous game of hide-and-go-seek. There's an elevated beauty to these moments that propels them beyond their fundamental lunacy.
Some bits hold together better than others, but Jodorowsky's investment in the material imbues the drama with emotional consistency. Equal parts autobiographical nostalgia trip and flamboyant B-movie, "The Dance of Reality" overcomes occasionally weak production values with the filmmaker's clear-cut passion. More than a return to form, "The Dance of Reality" deepens its possibilities without sacrificing the macabre freakishness coursing through the director's work -- and that's the prime reason for celebrating its continuation.
Criticwire grade: B+