It might sound strange to call The Dance Of Reality one of the sweetest films Alejandro Jodorowsky has ever made, given that the movie contains multiple scenes of a young boy being beaten and tormented by his father. But Jodorowsky has long been preoccupied by the extremes of human behavior, exploring the rawer side of violence, sex, art, spirituality, and fanaticism in the likes of El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre. With The Dance Of Reality, Jodorowsky partially adapts his quasi-memoir of the same name, explaining what it was like to grow up in a politically charged 1930s Chile as the son of left-leaning Russian Jews. He gives the story a typically Jodorowsky-ish spin, throwing in an angry limbless mob, a wife urinating on her husband to heal his wounds, a buxom mother stripping naked to play hide-and-seek with her shoe-polish-covered pre-teen son, and still more moments of surrealism, sensuality, and grotesquerie. But throughout The Dance Of Reality, the most vivid image is of Jodorowsky himself, standing behind his younger counterpart, whispering in his own ear that everything will be okay.
The Dance Of Reality doesn’t look like the classic Jodorowsky films of the 1970s. The picture is brighter and flatter, and even at its strangest, the movie is never aggressively off-putting. It’s more gentle and fanciful in tone, and though it’s as episodic and digressive as Jodorowsky’s best-known work, the various pieces add up to a clear, not-so-odd narrative. The film is mostly about Jaime Jodorowsky (played by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s son Brontis), who tries to train his son Alejandrito (Jeremias Herskovits) to be more manly, by forcing him to endure pain without crying. The Dance Of Reality also follows Jaime as he tries to win the respect of his fellow revolutionaries, by assassinating a Chilean leader. Between the Jaime and Alejandrito scenes, the movie deals some with Alejandrito’s mother Sara (Pamela Flores), who sings everything she says, and tries to nurture her son’s soul while Jaime is drilling into him that God doesn’t exist.
The Dance Of Reality isn’t strictly autobiographical. It’s more Jodorowsky’s impression of his childhood, which gradually transforms into how he wished everything had gone for him: with a mother who coddled him and a father who eventually got his comeuppance for being such a hard case. (In the movie, a nude, gnarled Jaime ends up having live electrical wires attached to his testicles, which is one hell of a “fuck you” to Jodorowsky’s old man.) Jodorowsky has said that making The Dance Of Reality was therapeutic for him, and there are times when watching him purge his own past becomes too arcanely personal to connect with fully. For example, the film opens with a long, direct-to-the-camera Jodorowsky rant about money that serves as an ill-fitting (albeit bracing) prologue, and Jodorowsky dwells on Jaime for so long that the father’s troubles threaten to derail the rest of the movie.
For the most part, though, The Dance Of Reality represents Jodorowsky in an accessible mode, telling a version of his life story in a way that will allow anyone who’s never seen any of his work before (in cinema or in other media) to get a good sense of who he is and what he’s all about. The Dance Of Reality rolls from one memorable image after another, from a shot of Jaime pissing on a radio because he doesn’t like what he’s hearing, to a stunning final scene of Alejandrito walking past cardboard cut-outs of all the eccentric characters he’s known in his youth. And the film is also philosophical in a probing, Jodorowsky way. When a sudden wave washes heaps of fish onto the shore, the older Jodorowsky explains what his younger self is thinking, unsure whether he should feel more for “the anguish of the sardines or the joy of the gulls.” That’s what tugs at the boy over and over: his father’s grim manliness vs. his mother’s overpowering sensitivity. And that’s what makes it so moving in The Dance Of Reality when Alejandrito’s elders—and sometimes the older Alejandro himself—step in to offer him useful advice, such as, “Something is dreaming us. Embrace the illusion.”