Not a movie review. Perdita Durango.
The main intent of this post is to convince you to watch this movie. You can help by making this not too hard. Note, I am not writing 'to watch it again' as Perdita Durango continues to be literally that unknown. Until today there is no legal platform that offers it for streaming, nor has it been remastered in HD. Now, should you indeed be amongst the rare movie-lovers who have studied this gem already, welcome! You, unknown reader, now hold a very special place on the dark side of my heart.
But back to the reasons why I need you to watch this movie. There are many of them, but let me highlight just these three:
- 2017 is the 20th anniversary of the movie's original theatrical release in 1997. So you are most likely guilty of having missed this treasure for 20 consecutive years! Time to show some manners, light a few ritual-candles, pull out the old VHS player and pay a little respect.
- Secondly, quite undeservedly this movie continues to stand in the shadows of its predecessor and role model 'Wild at Heart'. While many movies reviews from 1997 criticised Perdita Durango as a rip-off, in fact both Perdita Durango and Wild at Heart go back to original novellas by Barry Gifford. More importantly, the fact that Perdita Durango continues to remain 'underground' until the present day has led many people to believe Javier Bardem actually played his most evil villain in either James Bond's Skyfall or in No Country for Old Men. Both of it is obviously incorrect. As I say - you must watch this movie.
- Thirdly, and now we are getting closer to the point at hand, despite its genuine pulp-fiction nature Perdita Durango holds a few lessons in store about the nature of magic that are not to be missed. Not to be missed in particular by any Western 'learned' high magician who never saw his own blood drip into the dust while deep in shamanic trance... yes, I presume, that will be quite a few of my dear readers.
Need still more convincing? Alright, here we go. But first - for the uninitiated amongst us - a brief summary of the relatively unimportant plot, courtesy of RottenTomatos:
'The title character of this Alex de la Iglesia film made her first appearance in David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990) and was originally played by Isabella Rossellini. Rosie Perez takes over the role in this blend of black comedy, graphic sex and violence, voodoo, and weirdness. Perdita Durango is pure trash, a fact she establishes at the film's beginning. Her adventures begin when she hooks up with Romeo Dolorosa (Javier Bardem), a sleek, black-clad, sexually adventurous practitioner of Santeria who routinely kills, robs banks, and steals corpses from graves for his cannibalistic blood-soaked rituals. Santos (Don Stroud) is a pedophile and a crime boss. He hires Romeo to steal a truck filled with human fetuses that are slated to be used for cosmetic experiments. Romeo accepts but feels he must make a human sacrifice before he goes. This bothers Perdita not a bit and she even picks out a pair of blonde teens for the ritual killing. The two crooks kidnap the kids, ritually feather them, sexually abuse them, and are preparing to kill them when Romeo's cheated partner shows up with policemen. The crooks and their prey manage to escape, but the scheme to commandeer the truck gets botched and an ensuing shootout between Santos' men and DEA agents goes wrong. Santos loses many men and swears revenge upon Romeo and Perdita, who continue on their journey with their two doomed victims.'
Trusting your talisman.
Relatively at the beginning of the movie, in a large black pickup truck Romeo and Perdita cross the Mexican border into the US. The two of them just got to know each other briefly before - oh, and they had robbed a bank - and as they approach the border control Perdita learns that underneath the blankets in the back Romeo transports some truly precious cargo - a fresh human carcass which he just bought from a corrupt Mexican grave digger. Romeo calms Perdita down, and single-handedly places his large Santeria talisman necklace over the blankets in the back, whispering a prayer over it and happily greeting the border control officer. While the blankets and the charm are in plain sight to the office, they successfully cross the border uncontrolled.
Now here is the first thing we might want to check on our lives as goês or mages: If you don't trust your own talisman getting you safely over a border with a corpse in the back of your truck, why bother with a talisman at all? Seriously. How much of your fate, future and fortune would you wager on the forces you assembled in your most powerful charm? In fact, point in case is as goês or mages we don't wager at all. We either know what our mojo can or can't do for us, or we are really wearing our talisman not as a magicians but as religious people. Either way is fine obviously - but quite distinct. The latter group fuels their talisman through blind faith, whereas the former individuals actually co-create them in partnership with the spirits that ultimately empower it. More importantly than that, for adepts and magicians the physical object mainly is a material anchor of a spirit-pact or -bond struck on an inner level.
Now of course Perdita Durango is a pulp-fiction movie and everything in it is meant to be over the top; but that doesn't mean that Romeo is not actually making a pretty serious point here: As goêts or mages there is zero space for occult accessories in our wardrobes and houses. Instead each shape, form or substance you carry on you has to serve a very particular and clearly spelled out function. Romance is a folly we cannot afford when attempting to build physical anchor-points for spirits.
Two different scenes in the movie portray a most wonderful pulp-fiction chimera of similar semi-public Santeria rituals. Obviously these sinister rites involve the named corpse, drugs, a pair of naked and feathered blonde teenagers, plenty of big candles, cigars, black hats, cocks, blood, ape skulls... Like everything. Literally everything a production designer of an 8m USD trash movie could first dream up and then conjure up for little money.
The attraction in these scenes, however, really isn't about the scenery but about our very own Santeria priest, Romeo Dolorosa (Javier Bardem). His physical presence and power is second to nothing I have ever seen on the (trash) silver screen before. Yes, even my beloved Nicholas Cage in Wild at Heart quickly pales and wanes into the background when compared the raw power and electric presence of Javier Bardem in this role of his life. The only fair comparison I could think of was a Henry Rollins set free on stage in the mid 1980s... But then, he was a rock god, and not quite a Santeria priest.
I easily watched Perdita Durango ten times over the last 20 years. I certainly watched these two scenes at least double as often. Granted - and to be fully transparent here - there actually is a third scene that qualifies as well. It occurs at roughly 1:38min where the blood covered Romeo literally owns the dance floor after reshaping a man's face with a broken glass bottle. I admit, I would throw that one in as well - the way Romeo gives in to the gods and allows to be mounted by them, his dance is just another ritual in everyday disguise.
Now, what do we take from this, fellow goês and mages? Obviously there is enough shit going on in this world already, and the very last thing it needs is wanna-be ritual priests going out there killing teenagers, cocks or just taking drugs to invoke ritual trance. We can all do much better!
The real food for thought lies in the pure physical performance we see Romeo Dolorosa pulling off. See, the problem with our Western world is that we love to tame all kind of things - we like to tame them, then tear them apart, then tie them up and then merchandise them. One box over the counter at a time. What we see in Dolorosa's performance is the complete opposite to such 'spiritual gentrification'. His performance is untamed, made up of raw, pure power. So next time you wonder about your magical invocation text - and whether you actually should learn it by heart or whether the spirits won't realise it if you wing it and read it from the pages of your book - think again, and think of Romeo Dolorosa.
The fact that spirits like to move through and ideally into our human flesh is by no means a reality confined to the indigenous African cults. Even our Western grimoire spirits like the sound of instruments, of human voices, and they all, with not a single exception, like our human sweat when poured out in trance and dance in service to them. Like humans like to ride on horsebacks, so the spirits enjoy their rides in human flesh. That is an important thing to consider when attempting to work with them. At the end of the day is each spirit relationship is a business relationship. What do you have that I want and vice versa? What is it we could do together that neither of us could to alone? And most importantly, why is it that I should trust you? And here, at least on the spirit side, a little mounting and dancing and singing goes a very, very long way.
I promise, you won't need a single grain of any kind of drug if you can match Dolorosa's performance in how 'all-in' you go in your own rituals. The trick is not to try to look good in front of anyone, actually, the trick is not trying to perform or do anything that has a label at all... Let's just sing and dance for the spirits, like the old goês used to. I guess, it's never too late to revive a critical skill our ancestors carefully engrained in our DNA? Trust me, it's all still there - right underneath a thin finish of courtliness. Your temple or any forest at night is the perfect place to scratch off that tarnish.
Facing the consequences.
For much of the rest of the movie Dolorosa keeps on chasing his dream - and in the process of this, as anyone can imagine for the kind of movie this is, brings down all sorts of villains, loved ones and ultimately even himself... The end of the movie has been criticised as 'failing to find a suitable conclusion'. Well, I beg to differ in this particular case from the otherwise almost inerrant Empire Online Magazine, whose movie reviews have to count among the best.
De La Iglesia offers the only suitable end this movie could have: a dream buried in shatters, a hero turned trickster takes final fancy in his own childhood dreams, because his mix of magic, madness and mayhem has turned his adult self all hollow and empty. The boy returns onto the stage when the man has nothing left to offer. And the man is revealed as nothing but a paper mask, a cut out from old movies, meticulously staged and propped up in real life... until it tears and breaks apart.
After all, I guess, this post does have a serious point? There is no rule more important in deep magic than to strive to be genuine. Remember the old mystery cult saying: 'Know yourself'. As adepts and mages we don't get to choose who we become, we certainly don't get to impersonate, and we never get to fake it. Hell, in most cases we don't even get to look too good in front of others. These are all things Romeo Dolorosa could not accept - and therefore created the beautiful narcissistic facade of a pulp-fiction Santeria priest we got to adore for a little more than two hours.
The beauty and horror of deep magic are both that it is without mercy. Just like nature is without mercy: You do A and B follows, you choose a path and your journey is set. As we all know since the times of old Dr.Faust, as a mage you better don't regret your choices. Certainly, at the end of the day all humans face the consequences of the things they chose and did. But as magicians we live on an accelerated feedback loop between cause and effect. So that we learn quicker. And do less damage. Personally, I consider this a privilege: at least we get to see our scars in real life - both the ones we leave on us and the world around us.
Feel free to consider this my personal Holiday Gift to you. The DVD can be owned for less than 10 USD. I know I am cheap, and so is this movie. But boy, will Perdita Durango take you on a night out...