El Topp can’t be reviewed in the traditional sense, mostly because it wasn’t made in the traditional sense. It’s a film meant to elicit shock, the sight of a young, completely nude six-year old boy standing above a man wishing to killed, the child pulling the trigger on request. It’s a film meant to elicit a feeling of personal discovery, El Topo (played by director Alejandro Jodorowksy) vanquishing four warrior masters in a spiraling desert. It’s even a film played for laughs, El Topo completing his journey, then leading a life of unselfishness as he digs a group of the deformed and inbred out of a rocky cave trap, performing comedic stage acts to earn money for the project.
El Topo is a lot of things to a lot of people, and in all honesty, it doesn’t matter what anyone of them think. It’s an individual experience, something you take away from what you put into it, patience, frustration or otherwise. You can be offended and shocked, El Topo’s blatant, harsh religious allegories by no means gentle. The movie eschews all reality for a fantastical approach to something resembling a traditional western, but really splitting into two vastly different films.
There are dueling narratives, structured in their own way with their own feel. Both contain routine elements as often as they contain the brazen and the bizarre. Using the word “routine” almost feels out of place, although you can take El Topo as a journey of one man as he tries to find himself. Or, take it as Jodorowsky portraying himself as some Christ-like figure who rises above all as an invincible god. It’s that type of film, an acquired taste that is either revolting or brilliant.
El Topo establishes and the destroys normalcy, hitting a market at just the right moment to offer alternatives to the Hollywood mainstream. There is little like El Topo now let alone back in 1970, where midnight showings took off, and the New York Times was forced into retract their own review to acknowledge the endless fan support. El Topo has been called an acid trip on film, and you’ll be hard pressed to argue against it as such. It’s not just about the violence or the disturbing images, but the surreal and unheard of. The film becomes a mentally exhaustive exercise as you search for a personal purpose, some way to connect with the material on your level. What Jodorowsky stands for depends on you, not this written text or arbitrary stars.
El Topo was not a lavish, rich production, quite the opposite actually. That’s why it’s a bit surprising to see the film stock as represented here, a super fine grained appearance that barely makes an impact. There’s probably something else going on then, the softness fairly routine for a low budget feature, the lightly digital appearance not so much. While there’s nothing terribly striking to insinuate that the transfer features noise reduction (aside from a stray shot or two), there’s something about it not quite right, just enough to make it appear off, and slightly less pleasing to the eye.
The AVC encode itself is more than adequate, a generous bitrate ensuring the movie maintains itself without distracting compression. All of those Mexican deserts, rock faces, and hills are brilliant here, crevices resolved and grassy fields defined. Close-ups resolve a minor layer of facial detail too, the resolution boost enough to produce some well rendered, natural images.
The source print itself tends to waver in terms of preservation, although speaking general terms there’s barely a thing wrong with it all things considered. It battles against vertical scratches, varying in intensity and harshness depending on the scene. There are few moments of specks or dirt though, so looking away from those hearty moments of damage, this is staggeringly clean. No doubt it was simply impossible to remove the worst of it without damaging the integrity of the source.
El Topo looks fades typically, the flesh tones the first real indicator something is amiss. They carry that hallmark of DNR, a pasty, muddy quality. The rest of the image remains flat, black levels wavering from solid to fair, and the contrast simply adequate. Sequences underground in the caves is where this one tends to lose the most, budgetary constraints surely playing a role as the black levels collapse and the limited dimensionality is lost.
Audio comes in two flavors, although you’ll be better off ditching the hot, scratchy PCM 2.0 dub for the DTS-HD 5.1 mix. Not that the Spanish language track is spectacular, it’s just mountains ahead in terms of fidelity and clarity. There doesn’t seem to be any age damage associated with it either, hissing and popping barely noticeable, if there at all.
The score is where the complexity lies, filled with bold trumpets blaring that need all they can get from uncompressed audio. Highs at their peak are extraordinarily clear, leaving little distortion behind. What they lack in full range they make up for with clarity. The other thing to consider is how they stick firmly to the center channel, never venturing out to the sides or surrounds.
That goes for every element, the number of times the stereos become engaged able to be counted on one hand. In all honestly, this should have been a pure mono mix, setting an expectation for those who think this should have all sorts of gunfire blazing around the available channels. It can’t be offensive if mono was how it was originally presented.
El Topo is a movie that cherishes silence, and the first half is loaded with stretches of nothingness. When available, dialogue and scratchy sound effects lack the crispness of the music, yet remain undisturbed and carry a general vintage quality.
A commentary is provided by actor/writer/director Alejandro Jodorowksy, and that’s followed by a brief interview segment where he discusses the meanings and reception of his work. You’ll also find a photo gallery and trailer.
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