In Santa Sangre, life is a psychosexual circus (literally)

Santa Sangre is a 1989 Mexican/Italian surrealist thriller directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky and starring his son Axel as Fenix, an uncommunicative young Christ figure residing in a mental health facility in Mexico City.

After introducing the adult Fenix, the story flashes back to his tragic childhood in the traveling "Circus Gringo." Fenix's mother, Concha, is a trapeze artist and the leader of a blood cult whose patron saint is a young girl who was raped and dismembered. As the flashback begins, Concha has been accused of heresy by the Catholic church and her temple is bulldozed to the ground.

Meanwhile, back at "Circus Gringo," Concha's husband, Orgo the knife-thrower, is carrying on a very public affair with his assistant, the borderline ludicrously licentious Tattooed Woman. The Tattooed Woman has an adopted daughter, Alma, who strikes up a romance with Fenix when he helps her perfect her high wire skills. Enraged by her husband's infidelity, Concha bursts in on the lovers and burns their genitals with concentrated sulfuric acid, which as we all know can quite often be found lying around in circus tents.

Enraged at having his genitals burned with acid, Orgo pins his wife to an American flag motif'd knife-throwing target and lops off her arms before stumbling into the courtyard and slitting his own throat. Enraged at having her genitals burned with acid and her lover driven to suicide, the Tattooed Woman leaves the circus, taking Alma with her.

After this operatic juvenalia menstrata, the film returns to the present and the subtlety really kicks into high gear. Fenix escapes from the hospital and together with his now armless mother creates a new stage act called "Concha And Her Magic Hands," in which Fenix acts as her arms as she recounts the story of the creation of Adam and the Fall from Paradise.

Yup, nothing weird about that. Fenix, completely in the thrall of his mother's mind control, has also taken to stabbing every woman he runs across, starting with the Tattooed Woman, who has now set up shop pimping her unwilling daughter out to the local constabulary.

Santa Sangre is a cavalcade of Jungian archetypes and Catholic sexual ideation which draws heavily from Fellini, Hitchcock, Sergio Leone and Marcel Marceau. Whether you consider it to be a richly profound tapestry or an insufferably pretentious mess will likely be determined by your point of view on sin.

The premise of the sex-as-sin school of thought is that we, humanity, have been distorted by sex. Our defiance in the Garden of Eden has turned us into warped, funhouse reflections of what we were intended to be. Like Tod Browning's Freaks, Santa Sangre illustrates this point by showing us a raw, animalistic sexuality that pervades every character, including those who fall outside the biological norm.

Jodorowsky is the anti-Cronenberg. Where the existential Cronenberg reduces human complexity to biological destiny, Jodorowsky infuses every living corner of nature with human notions of good and evil. Throughout Santa Sangre we see the cycle of life, sex, reproduction, maturity and death not as being under threat from evil, but constituting it. Consider the funeral of Fenix's elephant friend (warning: graphic).

The pachyderm's casket is paraded through the town and dumped into a ravine where it is set upon by the poor starving humans who have also been similarly cast away.

Or this scene where Fenix and a group of hospital residents with Down syndrome take a field trip to see a film about Robinson Crusoe and end up snorting coke and visiting an obese prostitute instead (warning: not kidding.)

The choice of Robinson Crusoe is of course no accident. The world of Santa Sangre is populated by castaways, the wretched refuse, the misfits of society, the unworthy in the sight of God, the forgotten, the depraved, the abandoned and the unloved. It is Hell, old school traditional non-Sartre Hell, on Earth. Every corner of Santa Sangre seems to be populated by something that pokes us in the uncomfortable corners of the collective unconscious. Fenix and Concha's morning ritual alone is enough to undo twenty years worth of Freudian psychotherapy::

Sadly, for all this rich symbolism, there is almost no sense of character. Alma is a deaf mute who seems to have no desires or interests of her own and while Fenix can technically hear and speak, he doesn't seem to put those talents to any sort of character-developing use.

So burdensome are the wages of sin and so inevitable is the natural world's dominance of the human soul for Jodorowsky, that he allows them to utterly overwhelm everything in the film. Fenix is a latter day Norman Bates, driven to murder and madness by the domineering psychosis of his mother who tells him that he is nothing without her and will never be free of her as long as he lives. He carries her with him the way we all, according to myth, carry the legacy of Adam and Eve. But if we're defined merely by that legacy, then who and what are we besides empty vessels for it?

Fenix has about the same perspective on his life that a bug has of a windshield. By contrast Norman Bates, being a good Protestant boy, could at the very least articulate the values, the choices and the personal moral commitments that frame his warped worldview. Calvinists make for more interesting serial killers.

A special edition DVD and Blu-Ray of Santa Sangre was released in January and the film is also newly available on Netflix streaming.