Chilean director, writer, composer and all-around maverick Alejandro Jodorowsky could possibly be the person whose film output would be put forward to define the avant-garde or ‘difficult’. That was probably down to his third film El Topo which has variously been described as a ‘con’ and a ‘masterpiece’ and everything else in-between and caused some controversy on its initial release in 1970.

The film opens with a stark image of a black clothed rider El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky) placed against the blistering haze of the desert sands with a young nude boy (Brontis Jodorowsky) sitting in the saddle behind him.

They come across a scene of carnage, a town wiped out; the people murdered, animals slaughtered with bright red blood everywhere it’s a garish scene. Seeking the perpetrators, the rider comes across three gunslingers in various conditions and in various acts of violence.

Getting the information, he requires and disposing of them the rider tracks the Colonel to a settlement where he has supreme control, referring to his minions as dogs, throwing them the odd bone that in this case happens to be a woman Mara (Mara Lorenzio). The Colonel cuts a ridiculous sight in all his military finery and make-up. He too is dealt with and the rider then takes the woman but leaves the boy with monks.

The rider resumes his quest which is to question and kill four expert gunmen out in the desert. Each has their own tick and a lesson for El Topo. Mission accomplished El Topo returns to the scenes of the killings only to be shot at by a woman with a man’s voice (Paula Romo) who joined them after the first murder.

Left and found by a troglodyte community who living in squalor are looking for a way to escape and get to the nearby town. That town is a hellhole of murder, racism and slavery run by corrupt sheriffs and business and in thrall of a vicious cult. The cave-dwellers with the aid of the gunfighter (who to all sense and purposes as been born again as a mystical leader) and someone from his past eventually escape the cavern.

It’s been described as an acid-western, and with its mystical construct, garish colours and bizarre soundtrack one can see why it would have been attractive to the chemically inclined. The feeling though is that for all its stoned, stream of consciousness appeal there’s a nag that every colour, action and scene has been well thought out and purposely left open to several interpretations.

Jodorowsky could have been having some fun with the western genre and Sergio Leone. The early gunfight has the men tensely waiting for a balloon to deflate thus signalling them to draw, could be a take on the scene with the timepiece from For a Few Dollars More.

Slightly more fanciful is that it was horribly portent as the Colonel and his stooges resemble the Pinochet regime that came to power in 1973 with his ridiculously grand military uniform, surrounded by sycophancy, responsible for the deaths of thousands.

What are clearer are the references to the catholic church – when El Topo is shot he displays the signs of stigmata. Even here though the cult that is corrupting the town could be seen as representing the worst elements of the church. And as such not an attack on the church per se.

Time has been relatively kind to El Topo though some will still find it a tough film to watch, for various reasons. What can’t be argued over is that this is a fine restoration with the images and colours resplendent. The soundtrack to these ears did sound trebly but it’s such a smorgasbord of styles and ideas that I doubt if even a state of the art sound system could cope with it.

El Topo has a limited theatrical release from 10 January and will be available as part of limited edition Blu-ray box set in March.