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Luis Buñuel: A Centennial Celebration

At the close of a year-long, international celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Spanish director Luis Buñuel (1900–1983), Harvard Film Archive presents this special retrospective series, which features a pair of engaging film portraits of the artist as well as ten of the major works from his remarkable fifty-year career. In representing each of the three distinct periods of Buñuel’s enterprise—the succès de scandale of his early Surrealist films, the Mexican comedies and melodramas, and his final triumphant emergence in the international film arena—this program reconfirms the artist’s extraordinary depth and continuity of vision, which transcended the particulars of production budgets and script sources to place an unerring mark of authorship on his singular body of work.

During the course of this centennial year, the Filmoteca Española completed its preservation project to collect prints of all thirty-seven of the films Buñuel directed and produced. Notable also—and decidedly Buñuelian in spirit—were two events that took place in Mexico, where Buñuel produced more than half of his films: the discovery by the Filmoteca de la UNAM of a "happier ending" for the director’s famously downbeat Los Olvidados, unearthed in a lost version of the film; and the restoration of the column on which the title character of his final Mexican film, Simon of the Desert, was perched. The two-ton column, designed by Jesús Bracho, now resides at the entrance to the new offices of the Filmoteca de la UNAM. Here at the HFA, we continue to maintain prints of many of Buñuel’s key works and to present the films of this modern master, who saw in cinema a pathway to the marvelous and the poetic.


December 15 (Friday) 7 pm
HFA Archival Print

Un Chien Andalou (Andalusian Dog)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
France 1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 17 min.
With Pierre Batcheff, Luis Buñuel, Simone Mareuil

One of the most celebrated short films in the history of the medium, this collabor-ation between two young Spanish artists—filmmaker Buñuel and painter Dali (who wrote the screenplay)—utilizes the Surrealist form known as the "exquisite corpse" to create a dreamlike story of l’amour fou. Set in a Parisian apartment, the action spirals outward to critique the Church, bourgeois morality, and the accepted norms of art making. Even after seven decades, this dog, as filmmaker Jean Vigo once suggested, still bites.

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December 15 (Friday) 7 pm with "Un Chien Andalou"
HFA Archival Print

L'Age D'Or (The Golden Age)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
France 1930, 35mm, b/w, 80 min.
With Gaston Modot, Lya Lys, Max Ernst
French with English subtitles

The final film collaboration between Buñuel and Dali, this remarkable work was banned for years after fascist and anti-Semitic groups staged a stink-bomb and ink-throwing riot in the Paris theater where it was shown. A Surrealist exposé of the social institutions that stifle love, L’Age d’Or begins with an iconoclastic account of the founding of "Imperial Rome" (and the Catholic Church) upon the rocky shores of a pirate’s cove. A more contemporary tale ensues when Gaston Modot, as a sort of Surrealist "everyman," attempts to liberate himself from every morality: he kicks a dog, strikes a blind man, slaps the mother of his beloved, and flings a burning Christmas tree out a window. The film concludes with its most scandalous sequence, in which a group of depraved men—all of whom bear an uncanny resemblance to Jesus—emerge from the debauchery of "120 Days of Sodom."

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December 15 (Friday) 9 pm
December 21 (Thursday) 7 pm

The Paradoxes of Buñuel

Directed by Jorge Amat
France 1997, 35mm, color, 80 min.
With Michel Piccoli, Jean-Claude Carrière, Francisco Rabal
French with English subtitles

One of the most original documentaries on Luis Buñuel has been produced by the director’s long-time producer, co-conspirator, and friend, Serge Silberman. Although Silberman worked throughout his long career with such legendary filmmakers as Orson Welles, Jean-Pierre Melville, Akira Kurosawa, Jacques Becker, and Nagisa Oshima, he has recounted that "it was only with Buñuel that I had this symbiosis, this complicity." In The Paradoxes Of Buñuel, Silberman focuses on the innumerable contradictions in the director’s life and work—contradictions that came to serve as essential elements of his creativity. Among the most delicious of these paradoxes is the way in which Buñuel came to judge himself: he expressed contempt for his own work, claimed to detest art in general, and publicly declared that he would willingly set fire to the negatives of all his films. This is a work replete with the subversive charm and bite of its subject.


December 16 (Saturday) 7 pm

The Exterminating Angel (El Angel Exterminador)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
Mexico 1962, 35mm, b/w, 95 min.
With Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Lucy Gallardo
Spanish with English subtitles

With its simple, parable-like story and restrained visual style (achieved through the beautifully understated cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa), The Exterminating Angel presents one of Buñuel’s most devastating critiques of the bourgeoisie. Set in the home of an aristocratic couple who have invited their friends for supper after the opera, the film inaugurates one of Buñuel’s signature narrative twists: the endlessly protracted meal in which, according to the Mexican proverb, "corpses and guests begin to smell bad." The guests remain inexplicably trapped in the salon and, without the aid of their servants, begin to lose hold of their moral compass. Death, a double suicide, and general ennui reign in this nightmarish vision of the good life.

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December 16 (Saturday) 9 pm

Belle de Jour

Directed by Luis Buñuel
France/Italy 1967, 35mm, color, 100 min.
With Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli
French with English subtitles

Buñuel’s lush adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s late 1920s novel examines the plight of a successful surgeon’s frigid wife, who ends up working in a brothel. As the director noted, his approach to "such a stale subject" was to mix "indiscriminately and without warning in the montage the things that actually happen to the heroine, and the fantasies and morbid impulses which she imagines." The result is a thoroughly surreal, kaleidoscopic work filled with uncanny yet compelling narrative shifts and reversals that occur as Buñuel chronicles the attempts by the young wife (Deneuve) to come to terms with the powerful psychic forces that both attract and repel her.

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December 18 (Monday) 9 pm
December 20 (Wednesday) 7 pm

Regarding Buñuel (A Propósito de Buñuel)

Directed by José Luis López-Linares and Javier Rioyo
Spain/Mexico/US/France 2000, 35mm, color, 105 min.
Spanish with English subtitles

Produced with the help of family, friends, and colleagues of Buñuel’s from across Europe and North America, this new portrait of the filmmaker captures the life of one of the most complex figures of the international cinema. Through original interviews, unpublished letters, and recordings we learn intimate and unusual details of Buñuel’s dealings with some of the most important artists of the twentieth century: he helped Picasso to hang his famous painting Guernica, was thrown off a Hollywood set by Greta Garbo, attended one of Chaplin’s orgies, and tried to strangle the wife of the French poet Paul Éluard. The fascinating documentary materials are supplemented with excerpts from the half-century of films that are Buñuel’s legacy.

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December 19 (Tuesday) 7 pm
HFA Archival Print

Las Hurdes (aka Land without Bread)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
Spain 1932, 35mm, b/w, 27 min.
Spanish with English subtitles

Banned in Spain because of its "negativism," this portrait of the mountainous region of Las Hurdes captures a thoroughly inhospitable landscape and a people who long ago abandoned all hope. Reworking the traditional documentary to make this "essay in human geography," Buñuel deploys a highly objective, matter-of-fact commentary that serves only to heighten the devastating imagery of human misery and futility.

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December 19 (Tuesday) 7 pm with "Las Hurdes"
HFA Archival Print

Simon of the Desert (Simon del Desierto)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
Mexico 1965, 35mm, b/w, 45 min.
With Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal, Hortensia Santovana
Spanish with English subtitles

Buñuel’s final Mexican production, Simon of the Desert is a darkly humorous parable about the life of an obscure saint who achieves new heights in his asceticism by perching in the desert atop a tall pillar. Simon’s faith prevails in the face of assaults and temptations, and he begins to perform miracles for his dubious new disciples: he restores the severed hands of a thief, who promptly uses the miraculously returned appendages to slap his own daughter. A final miracle of sorts is performed by the Devil, who liberates the ascetic to that hell on earth known as New York City.

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December 19 (Tuesday) 9 pm

The Prisoners of Buñuel (De Gevangenen van Buñuel)

Directed by Ramón Gieling
The Netherlands 2000, 35mm, color, 73 min.

Sixty-seven years after Buñuel created a vision of hell on earth in his documentary Las Hurdes (Land without Bread), Dutch filmmaker Ramón Gieling and his crew return to the same remote region of Spain to document it anew—this time, to see if a more objective view might be possible. (Buñuel’s film, despite its ostensibly straightforward portrayal, ended up #incurring the wrath of both Church and state for its brutal presentation of the starvation, disease, and madness there.) Gieling’s crew sets up a projector in a local square and screens Buñuel’s film for the villagers. The marvelous remembrances and sometimes fierce reaction that ensue form the basis for this fascinating sequel to a classic documentary film.

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January 18 (Thursday) 7 pm
January 20 (Saturday) 7 pm
HFA Archival Print

The Milky Way (La Voie Lactée)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
France/Italy 1968, 35mm, color, 102 min.
With Laurent Terzieff, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig
French with English subtitles

One of Buñuel’s most vigorous critiques of Catholic doctrine, The Milky Way is a picaresque tale about a pair of tramps who set off from Paris on the classic European pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. During the course of their journey, they traverse not only space but time, traveling back in history to bear witness to Jesus’ speech at the wedding in Cana, remarks by the Virgin Mary about her son’s grooming habits, and even an appearance by the Devil himself. More corrosive are the discussions of the articles of faith by less vaunted figures—like a rural police inspector whose skepticism about the nature of the Eucharist leads him to conclude, "You’ll never convince me that the body of Christ can be enclosed in a piece of bread!"

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December 21 (Thursday) 9 pm

The Phantom of Liberty (Le Fantôme de la liberté)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
France 1974, 35mm, color, 104 min.
With Adrianne Asti, Monica Vitti, Pierre Maguelon
French with English subtitles

Another of Buñuel’s attempts to "épater les bourgeois," The Phantom of Liberty is an episodic work that radiates out from a brutal historical prologue set in nineteenth-century Toledo, where drunken French troops randomly murder the citizenry as they desecrate the church. In the first of a series of abrupt shifts, Buñuel segues to a modern-day Parisian park, where two au pairs chat on about the horrors of Napoleonic times as their young charges are accosted by a man. In this knight’s tour of the modern condition, the film shifts to the bourgeois parents and their doctors and nurses, and then further outward to embrace a seemingly random, yet systematic, critique of contemporary European psychopathology.

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December 22 (Friday) 7 pm

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
France 1972, 35mm, color, 105 min.
With Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stéphane Audran
French with English subtitles

Reworking the central device of The Exterminating Angel, in which the proprieties of bourgeois culture are thoroughly disabused over the course of a dinner party that never ends, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie became Buñuel’s most successful film, bringing him into international prominence during the final years of his career. Less aggressive in its tone and less radical in its form than many of his previous works, the film is an ironic comedy of manners about a group of European elites who fail to obtain bodily nourishment from their pursuits and are perhaps, in the end, "too sexy" for their food.

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December 22 (Friday) 9 pm
HFA Archival Print

That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir)

Directed by Luis Buñuel
France/Spain 1977, 35mm, color, 100 min.
With Fernando Rey, Carol Bouquet, Angela Molina
French with English subtitles

An adaptation of a novel by French author Pierre Loüys, reset by the director in Andalusian Spain, Buñuel’s final film reprises the central contradictions that face the male characters in all his films and places them in the service of a sardonic critique of bourgeois repression and male subjectivity. Told in flashback by the widower Mathieu (played by Fernando Rey, Buñuel’s frequent alter-ego), the story focuses on the character’s unfortunate infatuation with the maid Conchita. In a radical ploy that creatively channels the clouded sensibility and conflicted passions of his aging protagonist, Buñuel cast two actresses at once—the French Carole Bouquet and Spanish actress Angela Molina—to play the seductive maid. That Obscure Object of Desire ends literally with a bang as it brings the director’s career full circle back to the Andalusian landscape invoked in his first work in film.

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