The Darkness Within

 

illustration by Tony Stella

When I was 9 years old, I sat down with my flowery journal and wrote, in clumsy letters: “If thoughts could kill, I’d have already murdered her.” I was talking about my best friend.

The quote was from an Agatha Christie novel, my favorite author at the time. It was 1998, and I was a geeky second grader going though my first case of unrequited love. There was a cute boy in my class with whom I had nothing in common and, to make matters worse, he was “dating” my best friend. She would ask me to keep watch while they “kissed” behind the school after class. At her birthday party that year, they announced they were boyfriend and girlfriend. I swallowed the pain like medicine, revealing it to no one except my journal.

Christie’s words perfectly captured my resentment over being reduced to the role of the friend who assists, protects, and stays in the background. I wanted to have someone protect me while I kissed the boy I liked. I wanted to be admired and envied. I wanted to be the protagonist. At the time, however, that wasn’t possible, so I became the next closest thing. I became the villain.

A few months later, I devised a plan to separate my best friend from one of her close friends. It worked. I was ecstatic to have her all to myself, but even happier at having wounded her friend. In my young mind, the only way to feel better about my heartbreak was to upset others. Her friend was just an easy target.  

When I was a teenager, I got involved with a string of guys in an attempt to change the past. Back in second grade, I wasn’t able to steal the guy I liked from my friend—but once I became what men considered “attractive,” I used my newfound power to do just that. I did it because I was reckless and immature, and because it made me feel beautiful. But most of all, I did it because—just like Fenix, the protagonist of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1989 masterpiece Santa Sangre—I was controlled by a strong and desperate urge to feel loved.

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Some filmmakers, like Steven Spielberg, do a masterful job dealing with the concrete and the easily understandable. Others, like Darren Aronofsky, flirt with the metaphysical. But there are a handful, such as Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who operate almost entirely within the realm of the subconscious. Watching one of his films is, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, like opening the inner chambers of the soul and laying them bare. Will you understand everything you see? Probably not. But you will certainly feel something.

Jodorowsky’s biggest strength is his profound understanding of the complexities that live within us; his biggest weapon, an exquisite skill in creating powerful imagery. And in Santa Sangre, he gifts us with a multitude of memorable pictures: A dead elephant sliding down a hill in a colossal casket, only to be devoured by starving villagers; A woman tattooed from top to bottom having knives thrown at her, licking them as they land beside her face; A boy, Fenix, wincing with pain as his father carves the bird he is named after into his chest, in an effort to catapult him into manhood.

In his other films, especially El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky’s imagery is even more striking—and the plot less tangible. In Santa Sangre, however, he finds a balance between the two. He tells a more conventionally structured story, but fills it with all the sentiment and poetry of his more surreal works.

The film begins with an adult Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky, the director’s son) cut off from humanity, living in an asylum much like an animal—semi-naked and feeding on raw fish. We flashback to Fenix’s childhood as a good-natured boy (played by Jodorowsky’s younger son, Adan) being raised in the circus by his father Orgo (Guy Stockwell), an alcoholic knife-thrower, and his mother Concha (Blanca Guerra), a strong-willed, deeply religious trapeze artist. Fenix both idolizes and fears his father, who displays  a machismo Fenix has very little of. Instead, he is much more attached to his mother, and carries a gentleness normally associated with femininity.  

While Fenix’s childhood is far from happy, he cherishes the circus. He has his own magic act; is cared for by the clowns and the dwarf Aladin (Jesús Juárez); and spends time with his first love, Alma (Sabrina Dennison), a sweet deaf-mute girl who performs as a mime. The circus is the last window of happiness in the mansion of grief that Fenix’s life becomes after a traumatic event that changes everything: Concha catches Orgo cheating on her with the Tattooed Woman (Thelma Tixou), and mutilates his genitals with acid. In return, Orgo cuts off her arms and then slits his own throat, while Fenix watches from inside a locked trailer.

As a result, Fenix ends up in a mental hospital. He grows up—at least externally—within its walls, becoming a traumatized, naïve, and meek man, his social and mental development forever interrupted. What he most wants, though, is a return to the way things were. Fortunately, that begins to happens when his mother mysteriously appears outside his window one day, armless but still vibrant.

Upon reuniting with Concha, Fenix sets about rebuilding the world he had lost. He returns to performing—this time with his mother, in a bizarre routine wherein he acts as her literal arms—and reunites with Aladin. However, Fenix soon succumbs to his mother’s will and, at her command, murders any woman who dares show interest in him. As the child he still is mentally, Fenix is powerless to stop the murders, just as he was powerless to stop Orgo from attacking his mother all those years ago. She is the only one who loves him, so he must do whatever it takes to keep her affection and appease her murderous rage.   

When Fenix reunites with his first love, Alma, a newfound power emerges inside him. With her guidance, he is finally able to gather the strength he needs to overpower Concha and stabs her—only to realize that she has been a figment of his imagination all along. His mother died the day his father attacked her. The beautiful home they lived in together was actually decrepit. Fenix had committed the murders entirely on his own.

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It might seem easy to summarize Santa Sangre as a film about a crazy serial killer, but at its heart it’s actually a deep exploration into the roots of Fenix’s hallucinations; the key to deciphering them is built into the trauma that suspended his childhood. When Fenix escapes, after living in limbo for years, his mind goes straight to the place he’s always known: the circus. Remnants of it invade his life—the clowns; the performances; Aladin; and, of course, his mother. After a short while, Fenix begins to reenact all he’s ever known of adulthood: the abusive relationship between his parents. He takes on the role his mother used to have, while Concha assumes the role of the oppressor, which formerly belonged to Orgo. Fenix—who barely knows who he is because he hasn’t had a chance to find out—can only be a reflection of his parents. He is fighting two halves of himself; the masculine and the feminine, the violent and the gentle.

By attacking women with his “mother’s” hands, Fenix is finally able to avenge her death. It’s not a coincidence that the first woman he kills is the one Orgo cheated on Concha with: Alma’s mom, the Tattooed Woman. Jodorowsky even implies that Fenix’s illusions were triggered by seeing the Tattooed Woman during an outing with other mental hospital patients, a sighting that happens right before he sees Concha outside the hospital for the first time.

More than anything else, though, Fenix resorts to murder because he’s incapable of leaving childhood behind. His mind uses violence as a defense mechanism. He kills sensual women who are interested in him, because he can’t control his sexuality like a mature adult. In a particularly surreal scene, Fenix sees a statue of a female wrestler and a snake comes out of his pants, wrapping itself around his torso, a clear metaphor for his sexual arousal and its power over him.  

The moment Fenix finally stabs his mother, causing the veil to be lifted, is as cathartic  as it is tragic. The imaginary world he lived in was damaging to himself and others, but it was also the last vestige of his childhood. When he says goodbye to the clowns and to Aladin, this time forever, he’s also saying goodbye to those happy years in the circus, and to the innocent child he once was. On the positive side, he still has something to look forward to in Alma, with whom he can now build a romantic relationship.

While Concha represents the repression, darkness, and fear (of his sexuality, among other things—concha is slang for “vagina” in Spanish) that lives inside him, Alma (“soul” in Spanish) is a personification of Fenix’s loving side—his actual soul, the one he had before his childhood trauma. It’s her help that finally pushes Fenix to transition into the next phase of his life, represented by the film’s most gorgeous moment: Alma, miming a bird fleeing from Fenix’s tattooed chest and into the sky, where it can fly wherever it pleases. By letting go of the “fenix” marked on him—a macho and inaccurate vision of himself imposed by his father—Fenix is able to let go of his hate and worry.

He grows up.

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At its core, Santa Sangre is the story of a traumatized boy who conjured up a maternal figure because he couldn’t face life on his own, and of a man whose severe trauma caused him to get lost inside his own mind. However, once this man gathered the courage to face the truth about himself for the first time, he conquered the darkness within.

As strange as it may sound, I feel a kinship towards Fenix. We had similar journeys, even if his was admittedly far more violent and dramatic; I didn’t kill a multitude of innocent women, but I did hurt them emotionally. Our strong desire to feel loved made us lose control, and we became the villains in our own stories, neither of us realizing the full extent of our actions until later. It’s only now, after all these years, that I can look back and truly understand everything I did to people who did nothing to deserve it. Like Fenix, my immaturity—coupled with a desire to be loved led me down a somber path, and blinded me to the consequences.

My own moment of truth didn’t happen in one dramatic scene like Fenix, but instead over several years throughout my 20s. Graduating college, moving to a new city, and starting a career all enabled me to turn away from myself and look at the world and at other people. Really look at them. Doing so helped me understand that I was not alone. That I was worthy of love even though I had my faults, just like everybody else. And that the right person would eventually love me exactly because of, and not despite, who I am.

In the final moments of the film, police officers surround Fenix’s house and demand he come out with his hands up. When I first saw Santa Sangre, I thought the ending was quite tragic, as it implied Fenix’s imminent death or imprisonment for life. But now, I see that my initial interpretation was superficial. When Fenix obeys the police’s orders, he realizes he has regained control of his mind. He looks at his hands in amazement as they rise and shouts, “My hands!” The film ends on this revelatory note. The truth is no matter what happens next, Fenix is now free to make his own decisions. He no longer needs to harm others. He is an adult. He is free.

And, thankfully, so am I.