Blu-ray Review: SANTA SANGRE

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Blu-ray Review: SANTA SANGRE
Alejandro Jodorowsky is perhaps the most cult of all cult filmmakers.  Over the last forty years he has made six films, four of which were his own, and two were adaptations of the works of others.  His own work has never ceased to stupefy, challenge, amaze, and blow the minds of its viewers.  In 1968 he debuted with an adaptation of his own stage play, Fando Y Lis.  The resulting film was so explosive that is actually caused a riot at its premiere as part of the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival in Mexico.  From there he made the very first midnight movie sensation in El Topo, a metaphysical western, which remains a seminal work to this day which cannot be touched by any modern artist.  Jodorowsky dug even deeper into the rabbit hole for The Holy Mountain, which remains one of the most densely made art films ever created.  The Holy Mountain is at once rich with meaning and swirlingly incomprehensible at the same time.  Those films are recognized as the work of a surrealist master, and, love them or hate them, they bear the indelible mark of an artist in love with his own art, and they are each unique.  With his fourth film, Santa Sangre, Jodorowsky chose to take all that he'd learned about filmmaking, and all that he knew about surrealism and the art of surprise and created what is both a complex homage to all of his favorite things about cinema and a film unlike anything that had ever been seen before.

Santa Sangre tells the story of Fenix (played as a child by Adan Jodorowsky and as an adult by Axel Jodorowsky), the son of a circus performer, and the cruelty through which he is put as a child that leads him to cruelty as an adult.  Fenix watches as his sadistic father, Orgo the Knife Thrower played by Guy Stockwell, rules his religious fanatic of a mother, Concha (played by Blanca Guerra), through mystic hypnotism.  The only bright spot in Fenix's otherwise painfully cruel life is Alma ("Soul" in Spanish), a deaf-mute girl brought to the circus by the new act.  Orgo also finds himself the target of the affections of the newest act, the tattooed woman, played by Thelma Tixou, and their relationship drives Concha to confront Orgo in a most violent way, only to find herself on the business end of Orgo's knives.  Concha loses her arms, Orgo loses his concubine, and Fenix loses his mind.

From there we pick up on Fenix as an adult in a mental institution, he has gone mute himself and lives the life of an eagle.  He is perched atop a tree trunk and will feed only on raw fish.  One day the doctor in charge lures him down with food and brings him out into the general population of the institution, which we then find out is entirely made up of children and adults with Down syndrome.  The doctor takes Fenix and his new friends out for a night on the town, but the trip takes a bizarre twist when the doctor leaves and the group is intercepted by a Pachuco (played by Teo Jodorowsky), who gives the patients cocaine and leads them on a merry journey through Mexico City's red light district.  Most of the group is led to a prostitute and wanders of to take advantage of her services, but Fenix stays behind and sees the tattooed woman who ruined his life dancing ecstatically with the Pachuco and something snaps inside of him.

Fenix escapes the institution the next day and reunites with his armless mother, literally.  Fenix becomes her arms in a very strange cabaret act and in the rest of her life as well.  It becomes clear very quickly that Mother does not like the kind of company that Fenix would choose to keep, as she forces him to kill over and over again through her own mystical powers.  Ultimately, Alma shows up again, but can she show Fenix what he needs to break free of his mother?  You'll have to watch Santa Sangre to find that out for yourself.

This film cannot be wholly described in one review, it takes multiple viewings to even begin to absorb the layers and the spectacle involved.  The film is a bizarre love letter to Mexico City, showing its myriad inhabitants as colorful and exciting, while also delving into the dark side of the city.  Jodorowsky does this not to show disgust, but to show reverence, he loves these people and this city.  He has repeatedly said in interviews that whatever is normal, he hates; he prefers to spend his time among the freaks, among the downtrodden, and among the lepers of society.  He shows them great love in all of his films, they are the ones who are chosen to be special and different, and you can almost feel Jodorowsky's jealousy through the screen.  

There are moments in Santa Sangre when you feel as though you are watching an only mildly atypical film, but those moments are few and fleeting.  They only exist to lull the viewer into a false sense of security before again ripping away that feeling and replacing it with something to challenge, shock, amuse, disgust, or confound.  Jodorowsky uses these moments to pay tribute to his inspirations in cinema; the giallo, the classic horror of early Universal films, and most obviously Hitchcock in the third act.  These small moments of familiar themes and actions tie together what is otherwise a spectacular achievement in surrealist film.  This is Jodorowsky's masterpiece. El Topo and The Holy Mountain were beautiful as cinematic experiments, avant-garde showpieces, but they were never really successful as popular entertainment.  Hell, they were never meant to be.  With Santa Sangre, Jodorowsky achieves that balance which had never been struck before and has never been struck quite as successfully since.  The balance between a successful, entertaining, and coherent narrative film, and the artistic integrity he'd always insisted upon.  It is a beautiful thing, and something I really don't expect ever to see the likes of again.

The Disc:

Criterion eat your heart out.  Santa Sangre has been one of the most notoriously complicated home video histories I can think of.  In fact, all of Jodorowsky's work falls under that same category.  His early stuff was only just released on legitimate home video a few years ago, and Santa Sangre had never been on DVD or Blu-ray in the United States before.  Severin Films somehow managed to untangle the wires and make this happen, and they have succeeded spectacularly!  

Video:

Santa Sangre's transfer was taken from a brand new restoration from Europe created last year.  Boy, howdy, is it amazing.  The print is remarkably clean of any significant damage.  I think I saw a few white specks, but they were insignificant enough that they didn't impinge upon my enjoyment one iota.  By and large, the film is very clean, and the high-definition transfer is outstanding.  Details fill the frame, things I never saw on my previous VHS/DVD/cinema showings came jumping out at me.  The film is filled with colors, first of all the colors of the Circus del Gringo during Fenix's childhood, and then the colors of Mexico City's nightlife.  The city is bathed in neon light and every bit of that excitement translates through this Blu-ray.  I could see every strand of Fenix's hair and every detail of the intricately designed circus costumes, the sequins reflecting off of Fenix's face as he performs are breathtaking.  When I watched this the first time on Blu-ray I found myself losing the dialogue and just staring into the image.  It is amazing.  There is no sign of digital tinkering, the grain is intact, detail is clear, contrast levels and colors are accurate, all in all this is an impeccable transfer.

Audio:

The audio fares just as well.  Severin gives us the Choice of English and Italian language Stereo 2.0 tracks, or a Spanish Mono track just as in the original theatrical presentation.  The original English track is presented in DTS-HD 2.0.  No fake surround tracks.  The stereo audio is clear and punchy.  The occasional use of the stereo panning is well-defined, and the dialogue is never muddled.  However, for those who might have a tough time with the often thick accents, Severin has provided an English SDH subtitle stream.  There is no unintentional distortion in the audio either.  There are times where the music can sound warbly, however, this is correct, I've heard that same warble theatrically and on VHS, so it isn't the fault of the audio mix.  Couldn't ask for anything better!

Extras:

I may need to pace myself on these.  

Severin has provided, by far, the most outrageously packed edition in their catalog with Santa Sangre.  Over 5 hours of extras are on this disc, including the commentary, and only a couple of brief moments would I call superfluous.  If I didn't know better, I could easily mistake this Blu-ray for a Criterion Collection edition.

Severin have collected each of the extras from the previous DVD edition released by Anchor Bay in the UK several years back.  First among these is a commentary track with Alejandro moderated by film journalist Alan Jones recorded in 2003.  The track is very informative and entertaining at times, it is scene specific, but one thing we learn from Severin's package is that Jodorowsky has no shortage of things to say, and he is never boring.  The only minor quibble I have with this commentary is that I really wish there was a subtitle track to go along with it.  Jodorowsky's English can be hard to follow at times, and I lost him once or twice.  Severin also ports over a Q & A from a screening of Santa Sangre at the ICA in London in 2002.  This Q & A is awesome, Jodorowsky pulls no punches and speaks on topics from funding his films to circumcision, to why Starship Troopers is his favorite American film, really great stuff.  Also from that set are "Echek", a short black and white silent film made by Adan Jodorowsky, and a couple of deleted scenes.

Newly attached to Santa Sangre for Severin's go at this classic are a ton of original and licensed featurettes, documentaries, TV shows, and interviews only available here!

First of all there is the documentary, Goyo Cardenas - Spree Killer.  Cardenas was a Mexican spree killer who killed 30 women in the 1940's, went to prison, did his time, and emerged a normal human being, even a respected one.  This documentary, at 18 minutes, is interesting and a good look into a criminal not much heard of outside of Mexico.

Next up is the Jonathan Ross-hosted For One Week Only: Alejandro Jodorowsky.  This was a show hosted by Jonathan Ross following his brilliant Incredibly Strange Film Show in the early 1990's.  The documentary takes brief glance at Jodorowsky's entire career, but pays special attention to Santa Sangre, perhaps due to rights clearances.  Jodorowsky and Ross are awesome in this show, with Ross feeding Jodorowsky what should be tough questions, and Jodorowsky feeding him brutally honest answers.  For example when Ross asks Jodorowsky about misogyny in Santa Sangre, Jodorowsky fires back that he absolutely hates women.  The man is amazingly candid and comfortable in his own skin, and that shows through in every interview I've ever seen with him.

Also included is a 30 minute interview with Jodorowsky from 2003.  This goes over every part of his filmmaking career, from financing, to writing, his history, his future, his feelings about some of his collaborators (he hated Guy Stockwell), and everything and anything in-between.  Jodorowsky's candor makes him an ideal interview subject, there is no couching of any feelings with him, you ask him a question, and he'll give you an answer.  Just one more reason to love him.

The centerpiece of the extras is the amazing seven part feature length documentary, "Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre".  This documentary was entirely produced by Severin Films, who got their start producing extras for other companies, and is one of the finest making of docs I've seen yet.  Filmed on three continents and in four languages, this is the most wide ranging exploration of Santa Sangre's genesis, production, and aftermath ever done.  Just amazing.  Severin manages to film pretty much every living person involved with the production.  We hear from director Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fenixes Adan and Axel (Cristobal) Jodorowsky, as well as actors Blanca Guerra, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Dennison, and Faviola Elenka Tapia.  On the production side we also hear from Sergio Arau, the artist who created the tattoos of the tattooed woman, co-writer Roberto Leoni, and composer Simon Boswell.  One of the most fascinating things I learned from this documentary was how much of the film was embellished on the spot.  Not really improvised, as there was a very well developed script, but if Alejandro found something he liked while walking around in Mexico City, he put it in the movie.  This was the case with the chorus in front of the church of Santa Sangre, who were a blind church singing group, it was the case with the drag queen hookers on the strip during the cocaine sequence, it was the case with the man who assaults Alma as an adult, it happened all the time. 

I'd always erroneously thought that Jodorowsky would be some kind of closed off artist living in a crystal tower not wanting to over explain his art, but this documentary proves me wrong.  As I mention above, he is very open about his opinions, his ideas, his successes and failures, and what he was thinking when he created this absurd piece of genius.  In all honesty, I would have bought a Blu-ray with nothing but this documentary on it, and happily paid out the nose.  Severin really have outdone themselves, and they deserve all of the accolades I'm sure this release will provide.

There are a few other minor extras, mainly a trio of special features with the film's composer Simon Boswell: a brief interview proves to be friendly, but not terribly insightful or well prepared; then there is his short film "Blink Jodorowsky" which is two minutes of Alejandro blinking in extremely slow motion; and finally a music Video featuring video from Jodorowsky's interview in 2010 for the documentary and the film titled "Close Your Eyes".  We wrap it up with some trailers, and there we are, Bob's your uncle!

Overall:

Do I really need to wrap this up?  I could talk about this film and this package forever (and I pretty much have).  Severin Films has released an essential edition of an essential film.  If you have ever seen Santa Sangre before, you want this Blu-ray.  If you have never seen Santa Sangre before, this is essential mind-expansion material.  I highly recommend this disc.  Severin has made both the DVD and Blu-ray editions available on REGION-FREE discs, so there is no reason not to get this.  Thank you, Severin, for this incredible package!

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Alejandro JodorowskyRoberto LeoniClaudio ArgentoAxel JodorowskyBlanca GuerraGuy StockwellThelma TixouDramaFantasyHorror

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James MarshFebruary 1, 2011 3:52 AM

My copy should be here any day now. I've also got the R1 Jodorowsky Box set but not watched any of them yet. I might have to sit down sometime soon and embark on a back-to-back marathon!

J HurtadoFebruary 1, 2011 10:56 AM

A Jodorwsky marathon might be enough to break one's brain, though if anyone is game for it, I'm sure it's you. If you do, go chronologically, as outstanding as Santa Sangre is, it is the cinematic equivalent of a "cool down" when considering his first three films.