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A diplomatic review of Alejandro Jodor owsky’s The Dance of Reality must allude to a universally acknowledged truth: If you hate romantic comedies, you’re not going to seek out romantic comedies. That principle applies—with the potential for more extreme teeth-gnashing—here. Unless you’re a fan of the surreal, the avant-garde, or the just plain weird, Jodorowsky’s first film in 23 years could be a trial.

One assumes, however, that those who buy tickets will be familiar with the cult filmmaker’s works, like 1970’s El Topo and 1973’s The Holy Mountain, and therefore will relish in the sight of men without limbs, a citizenry that wears creepy identical masks, and a little person who shills for a store by crying “Death to high prices!” and stabbing a female doll in the vagina. And that’s not the only time you’ll see little people or genitalia. The former seem nearly a majority in Tocopilla, the Chilean town where the film is set, and the latter is frequently on display just because.

Jodorowsky adapted Dance from his autobiography. It has the most linear narrative of any of his films to date, deconstructing his upbringing by a strict, cold father, Jaime (played by the director’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky), and a mother, Sara (Pamela Flores), who was tender but also dominated by her husband. Young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) lives in terror of his father and the tests of masculinity he puts his son through, like having his tooth drilled without anesthesia or being tickled without laughing. Throughout the film, the boy is comforted by his future, adult self (Alejandro Jodorowsky, also the narrator), who appears to offer soothing wisdom, like “What you are looking for is already within you,” and “Embrace your sufferings, for through them you will reach me.” (He and Herskovits are the only cast members who don’t create caricatures out of their characters.)

Suffering, self-loathing, and the insecurity of being different from the crowd are the film’s predominant themes, though they are somewhat difficult to cull from the (often literal) circus on display. In the opening scenes, Alejandro sports long blond ringlets, and his mother calls him “father”—though “daughter” seems more appropriate. Sara sings all her lines opera-style, strips in front of her son and invites him to chase her, and urinates on Jaime when he comes home “infected” with an undefined disease. (Just prior to this, she belts out a glass-shattering prayer while straddling him. It feels like the longest scene ever.) There’s a hairless, tattooed character whom Alejandro identifies as “Theosophist.” If you’re not familiar with the significance of the name, Wikipedia can help you out.

Jodorowsky does provide some respite from all the mad metaphors with bits of humor (translating a dog’s “woof woof,” Sara’s operatic cries during intercourse). And toward the film’s conclusion, its messages become more straightforward and surprisingly joyful. A Mass, so often depicted as a Christian’s weekly sentence, is imbued with exuberance, demonstrating how even a death has a silver lining. The filmmaker makes peace with his difficult youth by accepting that every life is filled with both darkness and light. Earlier, Alejandro throws a stone into the sea and is accused of killing all the fish, which in turn brings in a storm of seagulls. Jodorowsky’s voiceover turns this into a conundrum of human existence: “Do you feel bad for the sardines, or the joy of the gulls?”