1989: the closing year of a decade that perfected the art of The Blockbuster and gifted the world with some of its most beloved franchises. It was the year of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, my beloved Say Anything, everyone else’s beloved When Harry Met Sally, and the first of the (undisputable) best Batmans. I knew honoring my choice of just one of 1989’s films would be difficult, but I also knew instantly which of the year’s best captured my heart with the firmest grip. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre remains an unconventional gem among 1989’s better known mainstream successes. Though it deserves to be championed in the same breath as the successful blockbusters of the year, it sets itself so far apart by telling a beautifully unsettling story that perfectly emulates our darkest dreams.
I’ll admit that I was reluctant to write about Santa Sangre because I felt it presented such a stark tonal contrast to most of the movies that are being celebrated this week, and the last thing anyone wants to be is a downer. The more I thought about it, though, the clearer it became to me that Santa Sangre, while incredibly dark in its means, is rather uplifting and liberating in its end.
So much for not wanting to be a downer, right? I guess it can’t be helped. Watching Santa Sangre feels so emotionally tedious at points because of how highly it resonates with me in terms of mental illness and trauma. Jodorowsky uses the idea of losing one’s arms, paired with surreal imagery, to manifest on screen how it feels to allow these traumas to define us entirely. You see, while it is Concha who physically loses her arms, Fenix loses his own when she appears to him in delusions and demands that he act as her hands. It is at this point that Fenix loses his identity because he becomes so preoccupied with giving his trauma, represented by this manifestation of his mother, the arms to manipulate him with. Fenix is enslaved by his trauma and his mother’s control for the rest of Santa Sangre, committing unspeakable sins at Concha’s mercy. Despite his attempts to free himself from her physical and emotional constraint, Concha convinces him that it is helpless: “You will never be free of me. I am inside of you.” Time and time again, Fenix feels forced to act on behalf of his mother’s demands, regardless of how monstrous and vile they are in nature.