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Film Review: Performance Is Therapy in “Psychomagic, a Healing Art”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 6th, 2020

Film poster: “Psychomagic, a Healing Art”

Psychomagic, a Healing Art (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

Nonagenarian film director Alejandro Jodorowsky is many things: a citizen of both Chile and France; a maker of cinematic oddities; a writer of screenplays, novels and comics; and, as we discover in this latest film of his, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, a developer of an alternative form of therapy through which victims of psychological trauma release their inner demons through acts of theater and massage. He has been developing the method for decades, as documented in his text on the subject, and though one might question his scientific credentials on the matter, one cannot doubt his passion and commitment. It’s impossible to judge, based on the limited evidence presented here, the true long-term effectiveness of psychomagic on it subjects, but at least the footage fascinates, the pain and catharsis on display quite moving. Human suffering, especially when addressed in as creative ways as Jodorowsky can manage, is an always engaging topic.

Combining documentary footage past and present (the modern material was shot in 2018) with older archives and clips from his own films, Jodorowsky creates an atmosphere of inventive play that enlivens even the saddest moments. Whether it’s a man allowing himself to be buried alive to exorcise his father’s memory, a woman who jumps out of a plane to remove the heavy burden of her fiancé’s suicide (he jumped out of a building), other women drawing their self-portraits in their own menstrual blood or another man smashing pumpkins adorned with photographs of his despised family, the scenes continue to surprise with their simultaneous absurdity and emotional power. Then again, this is Jodorowsky, director of such cult classics as El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre, as well as the more recent (and semi-autobiographical) The Dance of Reality, who has always trafficked in an amalgam of repellant strangeness, charming wit and disarming sentiment. Why should he be any different in his nineties?

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky in PSYCHOMAGIC, A HEALING ART ©ABKCO Films

Speaking of The Dance of Reality, viewer beware: a sequence shown from that film features the mother of the director’s surrogate child-self covering her boy in black shoe polish to remove his terror of the dark; if he is also dark, then what is there to fear? It’s hard to watch this without considering the United States’ fraught history of blackface and our current national reckoning on race and racism, though the parallels here are merely visual. Still, I am not here to tell anyone how they should accept (or not) these images. What is important to Jodorowsky is how they demonstrate his early understanding of performative therapy as a cure for what ails one.

And then there is what the director calls the “initiatic massage,” in which one is subjected to a veritable envelopment of touching and rubbing, the contact releasing one’s feelings of doubt and self-hatred. Some of these massages Jodorowsky executes, while others are done by a male-female couple, who assist a young woman, whose relationship with her mother has never been good, to learn to love herself via a “birth massage” whereby she emerges from their arms and legs a freshly conceived being. Yes, it’s nutty, I will not lie. But I am no expert, and it appears to bring comfort to the movie’s subjects, so I’ll take their word for it over my own reservations. Magic or not, the joy is in the theatricality of it all, which, as always in Jodorowsky’s work, is boldly on display.

Smashing pumpkins in PSYCHOMAGIC, A HEALING ART ©ABKCO Films
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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