Santa Sangre (1989)

Welcome to the second installment of Spanish language orphan epics! Want to up the ante with some more existential despair, uncomfortable sexual antics, and surrealist imagery? Of course you do, you darling thing, you-- and wouldn’t mom be proud?

That’s perhaps the question foremost on Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky's mind in his masterpiece of oh-so-Oedipal proportions: Santa Sangre. Set in Mexico, this blood drenched little beauty tells the story of a hapless circus family. Headed by the brutish Orgo, who has a bad habit of thrusting more than just daggers at his voluptuous assistants that star in his knife-tossing act, mystic matriarch Concha who leads a cult of people devoted to a renegade child saint, and poor young Fenix, a boy magician caught between the two very different sets of expectations his warring parents have for him. The film takes its title from the church Concha heads--an abandoned bus station where a young girl was raped and mutilated by having her arms cut off. In the center of the abandoned building is a vast pit of “holy blood” the worshippers feel is proof of the poor child’s sainthood, but the local authorities, religious as well as civil, aren’t convinced. They bulldoze the ramshackle church, much to Concha’s despair. Fenix can do little to comfort his mother, because no sooner has she recovered from this loss than a mysterious tattooed woman arrives to spice up the porcine Orgo’s knife act. She brings her ward, a delicate, mute little girl named Alma with her. The only bright spot in Fenix’s life is his innocent flirtation with the girl, but this happy time doesn’t last long. Pushed too far by the abuses of the men around her, Concha decides to stand up to her husband’s wickedness in a creative, if devastating, display. Years later, an adult Fenix is left to deal with the results of his mother’s transgression.

What do I need to tell you to get you watch this movie? It’s a bloodier, sexier version of Psycho told from Norman Bates point of view. It’s a harrowing commentary on the dangers of machismo. There’s a spectacular visual nod to Peeping Tom.  It has a scene of an elephant carcass swarmed by beggars. Clown henchmen. Genital mutilation. Cross-dressing puppeteers. Creepy symbiotic mother-son attachments-- why aren’t you feverishly looking through Shudder to find this movie?

Lovingly layered into all this great film’s strangeness is a universal story of self-actualization. Fenix, our hero, is constantly bullied and manipulated by his parents, whether alive or dead. His father’s roaring masculinity is the source of the family’s sorrows, and when he carves a tattoo in Fenix’s chest with his trusty throwing knife, he tells Fenix it will make him a man. Concha dresses her son in the robes of her religious order, making him march with her in defense of her beliefs, even risking his life when the bulldozers get too close to the unruly protesters. The odd course that Fenix’s life takes (I am loathe to spoil any of it for you), is a direct mash-up of his father’s violence and his mother’s wild-eyed zealotry. If he’s ever going to have a chance of a normal life, Fenix is going to have to understand who he is and what he wants out of life. It’s a long, bloody quest for poor Fenix, but you’ll be glad you rode shotgun by the end.

Santa Sangre has all the delights. It’s vicious enough for the gore-hounds, surreal enough for the arty, strange enough for the inebriated, smart enough for the analytical, and cathartic enough for the weepies. I don’t care how special you think you are, Santa Sangre has something just for you. Ever watch a gorgeous Fellini or a mopey Ingmar Bergman movie and think, “It’s good... but it needs more elephant carcasses”? You know who you are. And you know Santa Sangre is just the right circus themed, soul-searching journey you’ve been waiting for.

Pennie Sublime