Santa Sangre (1989)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky) is confined in a mental institution. In his room, there is a tree he can climb and a basket that serves as his nest. He insists on living like a bird. Through a flashback, we learn that young Fenix (Adan Jodorowsky) once lived in a circus with his family. When his mother, Concha (Blanca Guerra), catches his father (Guy Stockwell) about to have sex with The Tattooed Woman (Thelma Tixou), she pours acid all over their genitals. Out of anger, the father slices off Concha’s arms and eventually kills himself. The Tattooed Woman flies from the scene with young Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia), a deaf-mute. Years later, Concha appears to Fenix and enslaves him to be her arms.
“Santa sangre,” directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, qualifies as one of the strangest movies I have had the pleasure to watch. It is both a surreal and challenging experience. Too few movies dare to expand our imagination. This one is a shining exception.
Unique images are abound: blood coming out of an elephant’s trunk, a father tying up his child to a chair to be branded with a tattoo, mongoloid children being forced to snort cocaine by a pimp, among others. Some scenes are very curious but are appropriately left without explanation. For instance, after an elephant dies, the circus family carries its coffin around the city and tosses it over a cliff. On the other side are people who appear not to have eaten for days. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is taken to the extreme: the starving people rush to the animal’s corpse like ants and start taking it apart like ravenous hyenas. While one group grieves, the other basks in ecstasy. It is the balance of life perfectly framed.
As shocking as some of the images are, the picture never feels exploitative because it wishes to tell a story about trauma, how an unloved but loving child can turn into a man without identity or proper reasoning to wade through the simplicities, let alone difficulties, of daily life. There is a reason Fenix looks up to The Invisible Man. He drags around his empty shell of a body to get from one point to another but he feels like there is nothing there, like he does not even exist. When his mother reappears to him, he is used as a mere tool, an appendage that his mother can attach and detach.
My favorite scene they share involves the mother wanting to play a specific song on the piano but the son cannot remember the tune. It shows their disconnect. It stands out to me because it reminded me of a scene when the son rushes up to his mom and hugs her tightly just before she is about to get killed by a bulldozer. Although the two scenes portray very different emotions, we discover that Fenix’ innocence is preserved somehow despite the tragedies he has gone through.
In its own strange way, the message is optimistic. It suggests that there is something innate in us that even blackest, meanest darkness cannot touch. And if that is the case, though we may succumb to its pressures, it is never too late for us to change for the better. “Santa sangre,” based on the screenplay by Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, and Claudio Argento, is bizarre and beautiful. Its experimental nature dares us to swim through a twisted consciousness and find bits of ourselves in its viscera. So many movies expect us to do far less. And they shouldn’t.