Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of my favorite filmmakers. A sure cult figure, there’s an undeniable pull to El Topo, Santa Sangre, or even the excessively indulgent secret masterpiece The Holy Mountain. What really pulls me into those films are the images that are wholly unique and Jodorowsky’s dedication to the transformative power of art and symbols.
As a Jodorowsky fanboy, I was really interested in Ritual: A Psychomagic Story. (He has a very brief cameo in the film.) Psychomagic is a form of psychotherapy that Jodorowsky developed in order to treat neuroses. Think Freud and Jung, but now imagine if they became surrealists and performance artists. This is part of what Ritual is about, and it’s actually more compelling than the rest of what Ritual is about.
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Ritual: A Psychomagic Story
Directors: Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi
Release Date: TBD
Psychomagic as a practice is rooted in the power that people ascribe to symbols and symbolic actions. I seem to remember Jodorowsky talking about a psychomagic client who had issues with his father. The client was instructed to violently destroy a cantaloupe and then send his father the smashed fruit as an act of symbolic murder. The patient was cured, and the father was probably (and understandably) weirded out. I don’t subscribe to psychomagic. To be frank, it seems like a lot of hokum as therapy, but if it works for some people, that’s great. That’s part of the power of symbols and the fetishization of objects, and it’s probably helpful for people suffering from major mental blocks or psychosomatic disorders. If true, Gallagher must have some serious issues he’s been working through on stage for decades.
The psychomagic takes place mostly in the second half of Ritual. The first half of the film is spent introducing our two main characters and the root of one character’s psychological problems. There’s Lia played by Désirée Giorgetti and her boyfriend Viktor played by Ivan Franek. The couple lead chic yet empty lives in Rome. Viktor, like many boyfriends in movies about women dealing with issues, is abusive. Initially it seems like they’re just a kinky couple and Lia’s a willing submissive, but Viktor’s cruel and gets off on it. He practically rapes Lia in one scene, but then they laugh after he’s done like it’s just rough sexual roleplay. Lia nervously laughs it off and thinks she’s laughing with Viktor; Viktor laughs at Lia because he knows he can get away with treating her like a whore.
After some troubling personal events and a mental breakdown, Lia goes to live with her Aunt Agata (Anna Bonasso) out in the countryside. It was there when Lia was just a girl that her psychological hang-ups began to take root, and it’s the stuff of a Fruedian case studies: death, superstition, and sexual awakening are all bound together. And so we leave the hard shadows of sleek, bougie citylife and wind up in a place that’s magical and hallucinatory. It’s common with these sorts of stories since the places of our youth are places where magic or its potential are meant to thrive. Here, spectral singers appear in the distance at night, pixies frolic like friendly neighbors who tell rhymes, and comely witches creep in the shadows of some odd mental past. This is the landscape of childhood and fairy tales, and in a lot of ways the ripe ground for psychotherapy rituals, particularly psychomagic acts of performance art/sublimation, to be performed.
Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi do a fine job of making the film look lush and differentiating the imagery. Though there’s a stark difference between Lia’s quotidian world in Rome and this rich rural life, it all feels of a piece. Away from the city is where Lia regresses into a kind of second childhood, and there’s a promise here of a new coming-of-age for her. Yet the city material is good too in spots. Given, when Lia’s with Viktor, the film looks like a middling erotic thriller, but there are moments early in Ritual where the imagery is elegantly composed.
Unfortunately Lia’s personal story of rediscovery and Agata’s shamanistic gifts as a healer are thrown off course. For some reason the film succumbs to the cliches of jilted lovers and angry skepticism — Viktor, who should have been abandoned in the first half of the film, becomes a painful presence in the second half. He’s the problem in Lia’s life, and ultimately he’s the biggest problem for Ritual. He’s too one-note and functions only as an artificial source of drama rather than having a sense of existence outside of that. From the first shot and his first glare, there’s something cartoonishly evil about him. Some attempts are made to introduce psychological depth, but they feel empty. One such effort is particularly laughable.
Not only do we lose sight of Lia’s story because of Viktor, but he also gets in the way of Agata as a character. She’s a well-respected psychomagic healer in town, which is such a kooky yet compelling idea. Agata is essentially a small town doctor, but instead of folksy charm while diagnosing a case of appendicitis, she’ll have have someone ingest ashes for the transformative value of symbolic actions. That’s a whole movie in itself, especially since they never really delve into the deeper artistic or spiritual ideas in the practice of psychomagic, which seems like the whole appeal of it. As with Jodorowsky’s films, the beauty is the commitment to transformation; psychomagic is part alchemy and part transference. Ritual loses both of these crucial notions when it just becomes a traditional melodrama about a domineering man who overpowers a woman who feels helpless.
There are hints of what could have been in the imaginative visuals and symbolic ideas throughout the film. Porn audio plays over images of industrial machines in an art gallery, which is Lia and Viktor’s relationship in nutshell. Goldfish from who knows where appear in a bathtub recalling Dark City and more fundamental unconscious imagery. In one especially good scene (despite Viktor), a chanteuse gives a rendition of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, a haunting song whose lyrics are from a poem by Abel Meeropol about lynchings in the South. A song like “Strange Fruit” points again at the potency of metaphors to make things seem more real. Perhaps good metaphors are just the uncanny version of the truth, which is why so much stock gets put into the symbols in art and the symbolic actions of psychomagic. There in the strange fruit is the truth.
I try to avoid “should haves” and “shouldn’t haves” when it comes to reviewing films because that sometimes feels like saying “I would have done this” rather than evaluating the work itself on its own terms. And yet I think Ritual shouldn’t have abandoned its commitment to the symbols and should have remained an exploration of the role that symbols play in Lia and Agata’s lives. For Viktor, symbols hold no weight or possibility. While the contrast is compelling for a moment, it wind ups severely limiting the many possibilities of the film. Poof goes the magic.