I enthused about El Topo because despite the freewheeling narrative, it did maintain a sense of urgency, and I did manage to glean some sort of meaning from the mish-mash of symbols it presented. In the first part of The Holy Mountain, Jodorowski loses both of those things. The film begins with a loose retelling of the gospel, where the hero is used to manufacture idols by an exploitative church. In an enjoyably sacrilegious parody of the Eucharist, he eats the face of Christ before tying him to a bunch of helium balloons and letting him ascend to the heavens.
All of this is done without dialogue and with frequent asides. The reenactment of La Conquista with lizards and frogs is particularly memorable, although it is disturbing mainly because the creatures are shoved into metal suits and and then blown up with explosives. Didn't check but I doubt a 'no animals were harmed during the making of this feature' notice appeared during the credits. In fact, there are a lot of animals throughout the film: crocodiles in the sewers, elephants with painted hides, a camel next to Jodorowski's throne when he appears as the Alchemist (making him look like one of the three Magi). I do wonder at how well these critters were treated during the shoot. In one scene, a herd of swans wander around the Alchemist's baths, and it looked to me like Jodo had them spray-painted black.*
What's more disturbing still is Jodo's willingness to objectify people. At the beginning of the film, the hero is trailed by a man with no legs or arms, who is later described by Jodo's character as a degenerate who needs to be cast aside. Jodo's throne room contains not only a camel but a naked, tattooed, silent black slave woman, and I'm not sure how much irony there is to be found in both these scenes. I say this because the gallery of grotesques the Alchemist shows the hero serve a satirical purpose (mass-produced art, the beauty industry, morally-neutered economics), and all of them are redeemed by his teachings. But is Jodo able to satirise himself?
The film ends by breaking the fourth wall, and the message is a good one: myths and fables that promise immortality (in life or after death) are false, but the film as a film inevitably leads to the "reality" after the film ends. So what is its value? Jodorowski is (characteristically) full of bullshit when he discusses the tarot in the DVD featurette, but he is clear that the cards are not able to tell the future. They only reveal who you are (emotionally, sexually, "spiritually"...) in the present. El Topo was like this as well: a heap of broken images we shore against our ruins, that read us as much as we read them. And the aim is for our sense of "reality" to be expanded or adjusted by meditating on these fragments. But is it, when so much of what Jodo shows us is itself objectified and removed from any sensation of the real?
*It's evident that Jodorowski had a lot more money to play with after El Topo won him patronage from the Beatles. The sets, props and costumes are magnificent, and the digital restoration does them full justice.