Life goes by like a dream — and sometimes a nightmare — in “The Dance of Reality,” an “imaginary autobiography” by legendary cult filmmaker (and self-proclaimed “psychomagician”) Alejandro Jodorowsky that marks the octogenarian Chilean helmer’s first feature in the 23 years since the barely released job-for-hire “The Rainbow Thief.” As purely personal a film as Jodorowsky has ever made, “Dance” features no shortage of the bizarro imagery and willful atonalities that have long been his stock-in-trade, but it all seems to stem from a more sincere, coherent place this time than in the flamboyant head movies (“El Topo,” “The Holy Mountain”) that made him a star of the 1970s midnight movie scene. By turns playful, tragic and surprisingly light on its feet, this welcome comeback — “rebirth” might be more in keeping with pic’s own spirit — should keep its maker fully booked on the fest circuit, with arthouse theatrical play also likely in key territories.
Jodorowsky, who has chalked up his long hiatus to the difficulty in securing financing for his unconventional projects (several of which were announced, then canceled, in recent years), begins “The Dance of Reality” with an ode to money. Gold pieces rain down in slow motion onscreen while the director himself delivers a monologue comparing money to “blood, Christ, Buddha” and pretty much everything else. From there, this carnivalesque memory film (with particular echoes of Fellini’s “8 1/2” and “Amarcord”) transports us to the director’s childhood hometown of Tocopilla, on Chile’s northern coast, where we first meet young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits), along with his father, Jaime (very well played by Jodorwosky’s real-life son Brontis), and mother, Sara (Pamela Flores), whose enormous bosom could serve as a storm shelter and who sings all her dialogue in a trilling soprano.
Resembling a cross between Little Lord Fauntleroy and Goldilocks in his blue overcoat and flowing flaxen mane, the preteen Alejandro finds himself simultaneously smothered by Mom’s affection (and belief that he is the reincarnation of her own late father) and bullied by Dad — a former circus performer — into becoming a “real man.” Among the latter’s tactics: a gleefully macabre visit to the dentist’s office, sans anesthetic. Escaping the family nest whenever he can, Alejandro explores the seemingly enchanted landscape of Tocopilla, his impressionable mind shaped by encounters with dwarfs, maimed mine workers, a pierced and tattooed Theosophist (who teaches him the tenets of meditation) and a mysterious drunk who cautions against throwing stones into the sea. This leads to an enormous wave crashing thousands of dead sardines on to the beach — a scene, like many in the film, rendered lyrical and haunting despite (or perhaps because of) its unapologetically lo-fi CGI.
“All things are connected in a web of suffering and pleasure,” narrates the director, who sometimes appears onscreen beside his youthful avatar like an unseen spirit guide. Juxtaposing his own coming-of-age against the social and political landscape of Chile in those same years, Jodorowsky openly addresses the era’s virulent anti-Semitism (classmates tease Alejandro for his prominent nose and circumcised penis). In its considerably darker second half, the pic emerges as a son’s pained attempt to reconcile his complicated relationship with his father, here depicted as a card-carrying communist who evolves into an unlikely radical, abandoning his family on a quixotic quest to assassinate the fascist military Gen. Carlos Ibanez. That part of the narrative is, per the director, completely invented, but the mixture of love and resentment he feels towards his parents is very real indeed.
At more than two hours, “The Dance of Reality” unquestionably has its longueurs, but on balance it is alive with enough images and ideas for several movies — as if Jodorowsky were afraid he might have to wait 20 more years before making another. Low-budget production values can’t always keep up with their director’s ambitions, but cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou nevertheless manages some strikingly off-kilter tableaux. Pic was a true family affair behind the scenes as well, with another Jodorowsky son, Adan, providing the fanciful score, and wife Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky responsible for the elaborate, imaginative costumes.