When Jodorowsky steps behind the camera, you can expect his vision to be nothing less than a surreal, unsettling masterpiece. Santa Sangre is no exception. Thow Claudio Argento into the mix and you have an even more deeply horrifying masterpiece. One that will leave such an impact on it’s viewer that it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint with a phrase. His work is sometimes so hard to describe and even harder to place in a single category, but one thing is for certain and that it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen on film.
Santa Sangre (translated means ‘Holy Blood’ or ‘Blood of the Saint’) plunges us head first into the psyche of it’s main character, Fenix-played in a wonderfully woeful and disturbing manner by one of Jodorowsky’s many sons, Axel. Fenix, now confined to a mental hospital and dismissed among the many other mentally retarded and mentally ill patients. He has reverted to a very primal state of being, eating raw fish, sleeping in a dog bed, refusing to wear clothes and even hanging out in his tree (yes..his tree!). But the doctors keep assuring him that he’s getting better, and apparently he seems to be.
We soon find out what has caused so much damage to poor Fenix’s fragile mind as we travel back with him to his childhood and into a world full of abuse and dysfunction brought on by both his mother, Concha and his father, Orgo- the owner of the family’s circus and sideshow.
Fenix performs as a magician and one day, as he is practicing his act, he witnesses his father having a rather blatant affair with The Tattooed Lady. She is also the guardian of Fenix’s love, a deaf-mute girl named Alma. Alma is constantly abused by the woman, but Fenix tries to give her some hope that one day he’ll take her away and protect her.
Meanwhile, Fenix’s mother Concha, also a performer as a trapeze artist who hangs by her hair, is also the leader of The Church of Santa Sangre. During a visit from the bishop when the church is being threatened by being destroyed, she explains that their patron saint is a girl who was attacked by a group of men who raped her then cut off both of her arms and left her to die in a pool of her own blood, which they have replicated in the church and use as a baptismal pool. Dismissing the church as a cult and it’s members as heretics (after Concha insists that the pool is indeed filled with holy blood -but in reality is simply red paint), the bishop allows the destruction and demolition of the church.
With her church now gone, Concha is forced to spend more time performing and eventually catches her husband cheating on her. She exacts her revenge by throwing acid on Orgo’s manhood and he takes his revenge on her by cutting off both of her arms, making her not unlike her patron saint. Orgo then slits his own throat…all of these things taking place while young Fenix watches on.
Fast forwarding to present day, Fenix escapes the confines of the mental hospital after his armless mother appears to him and beckons him to escape and join her. Together they work as stage performers, Fenix behind his mother as her arms and Concha as a storyteller. In the same Hitchcock fashion as Norman Bates’ mother controlled him, Fenix becomes his mother’s murdering pawn, acting as her arms and hands to kill anyone that she deems as an enemy to her, and it’s obviously no coincidence that all of the victims are females.
Falling deeper and deeper under his mother’s control, Fenix starts to lose more and more of himself mentally as more and more bodies start to fill the yard of their home. Fenix even goes as far as to try to imitate the movie ‘The Invisible Man’ frame by frame to satisfy his mother in an attempt to be only a set of limbs. When he finally runs into Alma again, who is still under the thumb of The Tattooed Lady and being prostituted out by her. Fenix starts to feel that perhaps part of him is able to be saved yet, since he has found his love again. But the fear that things have gotten too far out of control and the fear of what his mother will have him do to her keeps Fenix from his emotions yet again.
The Oedipal overtones of this movie are so very apparent, it would make Freud have to dust off his couch. But you feel just as much pity for Fenix as you are afraid and disturbed by him by the conclusion of the film. Not until the final moments do you fully understand the true extent to how ill Fenix actually is. As with all of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, Santa Sangre is like a beautifully grotesque painting or sculpture put onto film. His usage of the colors black, white and red also have spiritual and religious significance, as religion always has a major role in all of his films.
Santa Sangre is a movie that warrants multiple viewings in order to grasp all of the symbolism and meaning within the movie. Plus it helps if you have some ethnic and religious knowledge or education to understand a lot of the subtext of the film. For instance, Concha-Fenix’s mother’s name is a Spanish euphemism for vagina, after the shape of a conch shell. In relation to her character, it plays an integral part of her persona.
Probably the most famous scene, the death and funeral of the elephant is one of Jodorowsky’s most unforgettable moments. It was also the inspiration for Marilyn Manson’s videos for the songs ‘The Man That You Fear’ and ‘Coma White’. This scene is also very symbolistic of death giving way to life as we see after the elephant’s casket is thrown off the cliff into the ravine. Hundreds of starving villagers run down to retrieve it’s carcass to eat, and as the young Fenix watches this, he is crying to mourn the loss of his friend. As punishment, his father chastises him for ‘crying like a woman’ and initiates him into manhood as his father did to him…by giving him a very painful tattoo of an eagle across his chest, identical his own.
This marks the beginning of Fenix’s emotional decay as he shuts off his emotions and becomes callous and in turn is easily manipulated by his mother into killing for her.
Fenix’s character is named so not by coincidence. Like the legendary firebird, Phoenix, he must first be destroyed before being able to be reborn. In his case, he must be free from his mother’s influence before he can ever hope to begin to be happy and free. The conclusion of this movie adheres everything together to make it all not only have a point but to have purpose.
Just like Holy Mountain and El Topo, Santa Sangre will never feel dated, nor can it be labeled as just a horror movie. Like Alejandro’s other films, it’s something that you don’t just watch…you experience.