Review: Endless Poetry (2016)

A poet comes of age

By Zeke Trautenberg

Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic voices. Throughout his filmmaking career, the Chilean-born director has had a playful relationship to the medium, inserting himself directly into his films and drawing attention to the porous divide between reality and fiction.  

After a two-decade hiatus from filmmaking, Jodorowsky returned to the screen with The Dance of Reality (2013), a fictionalized account of Jodorowsky childhood in the northern Chilean town of Tocopilla during the dictatorship of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo in the late 1920s. Endless Poetry,  continues the story of Jodorowosky and his family in early 1950s Santiago.

Endless Poetry begins with young Alejandrito (Jermias Herskovits), his father Jaime (Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky), and his opera-singing mother Sara (Pamela Flores) departing Tocopilla for the Chilean capital. In Santiago, Jaime opens a small shop called “El Combate” where the motto is “at war with high prices.” During the day Alejandrito works at the store with his violent and demanding father. In the evening the young Jodorowsky reads Federico García Lorca and dreams of becoming a poet. His father wants his son to become a doctor and decries his obsession with "faggot" poetry. The strained relationship between father and son reaches a breaking point  when Alejandrito, in a fit of rage, takes an axe to the veritable family tree while visiting his relatives’ house.

After the tree incident, Alejandrito declares himself a poet and moves into a bohemian artists' collective. Signaling his transformation into adulthood and a poet, the character Alejandrito becomes Alejandro (played by another Jodorowsky son, Adan). The aspiring poet finds a muse in the form of the real-life red-haired and bombastic poet Stella Díaz Varín—played, in a subversive and ingenious bit of casting by Pamela Flores, the same actress who plays Alejandro’s mother. The intimidating Stella, who insists on holding onto Alejandro's genitals when they go out together, is the author of explosive poetry-in-action (“you are nobody!” she screams at the sleeping patrons of a bar) that contrasts with the protagonist's meditative verses about illuminated virgins and burning butterflies.

The scenes depicting Alejandro’s friendship with Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), another real-life poet and denizen of Santiago, are the most compelling parts of the film. In one memorable scene, the two poets’ decide to traverse the city in a straight line, which entails passing through a disconcerted woman’s home and then over her bed. In another act of mischief, the poets paint a statue of Pablo Neruda black and rechristen it the statue of the invisible man. The character of Lihn is also responsible for the funniest moment in the film, when he delivers a searing, hilarious insult poem in a drunken stupor. From Enrique and Stella, Alejandro learns that poetry and the act of living are one and the same.

Endless Poetry was shot by the renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who uses a muted color palette and lighting throughout much of the film. This restrained visual palette reflects the protagonist’s struggles to realize his artistic ambitions. In the few occasions when Doyle floods the screen with color and natural light, like in a street carnival scene, the result is fleeting visual ecstasy. Complementing Doyle's work is Jodorowsky's production design. The director revels in surreal and vulgar flourishes like urinals in plain sight in a bar, giant black and white photos of old storefronts covering their modern day counterparts, and a giant water buffalo head. However, the most compelling piece of set design in the film is Enrique’s bedroom, where verses scribbled in black letters across the walls and floor. Elsewhere in the film, Jodorowsky employs figures dressed head to toe in black as stage hands. This visible manipulation of the mise-en-scène underscores the artifice of a film that melds memory and fantasy.

As in The Dance of Reality and The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky appears as himself several times in the film. In each of these occasions he speaks directly to the camera, reflecting on his younger self from the vantage point of old age. In the film’s final scene, the director offers words of compassion and reconciliation for his unforgiving father—who, in true Jodorowsky narrative-shape-shifting fashion, is also his child. “Giving me nothing, you gave me everything” the filmmaker tells his fictional father. In Endless Poetry, Jodorowsky shows that poetry takes root even in the darkest and most obdurate corners of the heart.

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Running Time: 128 minutes

Country: Chile/France

Photos: Le Pacte/Le Soleil

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)