Over the extraordinarily diverse course of his career, Alejandro Jodorowsky has been a director of plays, a writer of comic books, a poet and novelist, a “psychomagic” guru presiding over therapeutic salons, and — oh, yes — the creator of a psychedelic Western splatter opera, “El Topo,” that in its scrappy-surreal midnight-cult way transformed the world of movies. Jodorowsky’s life has been one long prodigious outpouring (and he didn’t even get to make his version of “Dune”!). But now, well into his eighties, he has managed to reinvent himself in the most spectacular and unlikely way.
“Endless Poetry,” the second in Jodorowsky’s proposed cycle of five cinematic memoirs (the first was 2013’s “The Dance of Reality”), is a work of transporting charm and feeling. It’s the most accessible movie the director has ever made, and it may also be the best. Jodorowsky is on record as saying that his favorite filmmaker is Federico Fellini, and indeed, the ghost of Fellini hovers over “Endless Poetry” in more ways than one can count. The movie has dwarves. It has clowns. It has temptresses with pendulous breasts. But more than that, it has an ingratiatingly wide-eyed and adventurous autobiographical hero, Alejandro Jodorowsky (played by the filmmaker’s youngest son, Adan Jodorowsky), who meshes with the bohemian enclave of Santiago in the ’40s and ’50s and wanders through this nightworld of sex and art and passion and destruction with a fervor of discovery that recalls the hero’s journey in the 1953 Fellini classic “I Vitelloni.” Make no mistake: “Endless Poetry” is still very much a Jodorowsky film, dotted with his trademark phantasmagorical conceits, which are like candified bursts of comic-book magic realism. Yet more than any previous Jodorowsky opus, it’s also a work of disciplined and touching emotional resonance. With the proper handling, it could be his first movie to truly hook the art-house audience.
“Endless Poetry” starts where “The Dance of Reality” left off, with the teenage Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) struggling to wriggle out from under the shadow of his oppressive and bullying father, Jaime (powerfully portrayed, once again, by Brontis Jodorowsky), who doesn’t want to hear one word about how his son plans to be a poet. These scenes ground the movie in a universal reality, because the issue, apart from what a grumpy affectionless cad Jaime is, is that Alejandro remains torn between pleasing his parents and pleasing himself. Is there anyone who can’t identify with that? One of Jodorowsky’s most ingratiating cockeyed gambits is that while the boy’s father speaks in raging insults, his mother speaks in…opera. That’s right: She sings every line (as she did in “The Dance of Reality”). And there’s a beauty to the idea, because it captures how a mother, to a troubled son, can be in her own lyrical protective world, one of solitary tenderness.
For Alejandro, poetry is about more than staying up nights reading his idol Federico García Lorca. It’s about the lure of the unknown. At one point, he spurns the advances of his gay cousin, who’s in love with him, but where in the hands of a different filmmaker this might have been a conventional rebuff, Jodorowsky gives us a lingering fleshy close-up of the two boys’ one and only experimental kiss. That shot speaks volumes about how Alejandro, even though he’s not attracted, still longs to dare, to do the unprecedented, to go where he’s scared to go.
The film cuts to 10 years later, when he’s now a shy but strapping dude in his twenties, drawn, as inexorably as Ewan McGregor’s Christian was to the Moulin Rouge, to a downtown haunt called Cafe Iris, which has been given the incongruous look of a steel-gray-walled 21st-century designer art bar. Once there, he meets Stella Diaz (Pamela Flores), the boho demimonde’s reigning punk siren, and an arrestingly offbeat presence, with her flaming red wig and matching lipstick, her dagger eyebrows, her full-figured sensuality, and her attitude of take-no-prisoners fury, which whisks Alejandro right under her spell. “Every time we walk together,” she tells him, “I will keep hold of your private parts!” And she does. But this is a good example of how the movie works, with Jodorowsky weaving ticklishly funny metaphors into the action. In this case, it’s all about how the downside of Alejandro’s initiation into sex is what a controlling vamp Stella is, and that take-the-bad-with-the-good mix is exactly what makes the experience authentic.
Adan Jodorowsky gives Alejandro a winsome appeal. The actor looks like Sacha Baron Cohen with a touch of Jon Cryer, and the movie rolls along on his guileless eagerness to embrace whatever’s coming next, even though we can see that he’s basically a conventional and even rather timid person. The adventure that’s in store for him keeps getting wilder. He befriends the poet Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), and winds up being seduced by his girlfriend, a dwarf named Pequeñita (Julia Avenado), who insists that he have intercourse with her during her period. The scene that follows has an element of real shock value, but it’s staged with a convincing matter-of-factness, so that the audience, like Alejandro, finds itself in the position of giving itself over to whatever’s happening. It helps that Pequeñita has a beguiling sadness.
At moments, “Endless Poetry” can be a bit of a ramble, yet it’s an engrossing and pleasurable one. What holds it together is an underlying melancholy that seems to emerge from deep within the filmmaker’s Chilean temperament — and also, perhaps, his 87 years. Jodorowsky himself shows up on screen, as he did in “The Dance of Reality,” to “talk” to his younger self, and there’s something transportingly direct about that. It’s what we all do, on some level; Jodorowsky is just using the medium of film to act out that meditative instinct. One of the messages of “Endless Poetry” is that to be the kind of bohemian that Alejandro longs to be is to become an actor, to do things before one feels them. Alejandro is trying to break through to life, but inside, he’s still longing for his daddy, and when he confronts that longing in the movie’s culminating encounter, you may find yourself moved in a way that you’d never imagined a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky could move you. He first gained fame as a midnight moviemaker, but for Jodorowsky, it now seems as if the day is just starting.