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  • Benjamin May

Santa Sangre (1989)

Fenix is a troubled young man. As a child in the circus, he experienced extreme brutality and grotesquery first-hand; as a result he has spent years in a mental asylum. He whiles away his days thinking he is a bird and his nights in the company of a group of down-syndrome fellow patients. One day, he escapes the place, where he finds his mother and takes up arms against those she deems deserving of punishment. Falling ever further into a spiral of violent madness, only Alma- a friend from his past- can stop Fenix before his murderous spree gets out of hand.

Alejandro Jodorowsky's 'Santa Sangre' is a wild, beautifully photographed black comedy of the surrealist variety that is highly entertaining and intensely macabre. Full of dark metaphors and symbolism, the story is anything but predictable. From the opening scenes, a strange tone is established, one that is both bleak, stylish and- somehow- quite funny. Jodorowsky's tale- written alongside Claudio Argento and Roberto Leoni- goes to some rather brutal territory, from practically the very beginning of the film. Jodorowsky doesn't treat the material completely seriously, however; there is a tongue-in-cheek element to the whole proceedings that is most appreciated.

The dialogue in 'Santa Sangre' is consistently heavily melodramatic, and would not be out of place in your average soap opera. This is almost certainly a stylistic choice, as the heightened drama and violence calls for equally over-the-top lines. This doesn't mean that the stilted, overly-theatrical nature of the dialogue can't be pointed out, though; nor can it not be said that it makes some scenes unintentionally hilarious and lessens their dramatic power. It's akin to the dialogue from a good B-movie from the 50's: a little over-blown, a little stagey, but by no means terrible.

Under Jodorowsky's firm hand, director of photography Daniele Nannuzzi brings us some incredible shots that linger in the mind long after 'Santa Sangre' has ended. In fact, the whole film is a delight for the eyes, full of the efficacious use of colour, visual metaphors and abstractions Jodorowsky is known for. Enrique Estévez's set decoration is incredibly highly stylised, as is Tolita Figueroa's costume design; their work is as strange and as beautiful as the cinematography.

Simon Boswell's score is remarkably eerie and powerful, again proving the notion that he is one of the finest film composers working today. His strange, Spanish influenced music heightens the impact of scenes undeniably. Some moments- especially one when a young Fenix gets a tattoo from his father- take on a mythical quality because of Boswell's work (combined of course with the fantastical visuals). His is the music of the soul, and it is a pleasure hearing it in 'Santa Sangre'.

The late Axel Jodorowsky stars as Fenix, giving a performance of intensity and depth. He appears tortured, carrying with him a pervasive air of sadness that is most affecting. It is also a performance of immense physicality, and the way in which he moves and utilises his hands in particular is most striking and memorable. Blanca Guerra co-stars as Fenix's mother, Concha, and she makes Lady MacBeth look like Snow White. Commanding the audience with her remarkable dignity and grace, Guerra gives a performance of such vigour and barbaric potency you struggle to recall ever seeing a more vehement, villainous presence on screen.

From the large supporting cast, Guy Stockwell and Thelma Tixou both impress, giving terrific performances as two incredibly seedy and selfish carnies. However, the partial post-dubbing of characters is jarring, especially as it is an inconsistent job in terms of quality. Also- and this is more of a question than a critique- why Jodorowsky chose to shoot the film in English when the majority of his cast are Spanish is a little odd when a lot of the actors struggle with the language. Perhaps he wanted a larger audience; though he surely knew that 'Santa Sangre' won't appeal to everyone, and those to whom it does appeal don't mind subtitles in their movies.

At any rate, 'Santa Sangre' is a darkly funny, intriguingly bizarre film that is a bit like the results of a Tod Browning and John Waters combination. Beautiful, sinister and strange, the film is utterly unique and highly memorable. Well-acted, strikingly photographed and featuring a terrific Simon Boswell score, it's a film that impresses on nearly every level. It is not for the easily perturbed; but for those who from dark abstractions yield immense satisfaction.


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