The canonization of Luis Buñuel (1900 - 1983) as Spain’s “greatest” filmmaker is based upon a biased and only partial understanding of the filmmaker’s long and complex career. Ignored is the essential fact of Buñuel’s formative and remarkably productive thirty-five years in Mexico where he worked and thrived within that country’s ascendant studio system. It was in Mexico that Buñuel defined himself as a mature filmmaker, expanding his artistic horizons far beyond the radical avant-garde cinema of his earliest works – the audacious and Surrealist inspired trilogy (Un chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or, Land Without Bread) – by exploring a subversive engagement with popular film genre formulas that would remain constant throughout his career. According to legend, Buñuel came to Mexico by chance, merely passing through with a friend and with no intention to work in the country that would soon become his adopted home. Yet Mexico gave Buñuel his first major opportunity to work as a director after several frustrating and ultimately unproductive years in the US where he was fired from a coveted job in the Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art and then unable to find more than menial dubbing work in Hollywood. Easily integrating himself into the cosmopolitan community of Spanish and international exiles that enlivened post-WWII Mexico City, in 1949 Buñuel renounced his Spanish citizenship to be nationalized as Mexican.
One of the great transnational artists of the twentieth century, Buñuel continues to be celebrated almost exclusively as a European auteur, with the lush, mysterious art films which he directed principally in France during his last years remaining his best known work. Only recently has Buñuel’s equal status as a Mexican filmmaker been acknowledged by renewed interest in the twenty films he made within the Mexican studio system. Often dismissed as compromised genre films or mere preparatory sketches for his later work, Buñuel’s Mexican films are finally being appreciated for their complex and often outspokenly political engagement with many of the great obsessive themes of his oeuvre – the destructive powers of machismo and female desire explored in underappreciated films such as El Bruto and Susana, the loneliness of exile made palpable in the little known The Young One. The recognized masterpieces of Buñuel’s long Mexican years – El, The Exterminating Angel, Simon of the Desert, Los olvidados – in turn bring a philosophical depth and power to his cinema, together offering a sustained meditation on ideas of religion, class inequity, violence and desire.
This selective retrospective presents thirteen of Buñuel’s Mexican films, balancing better known works such as Los olvidados and Ilusion Travels by Streetcar with rarely screened classics like The Young One and A Woman Without Love, most shown in gorgeous archival 35mm prints. — Haden Guest
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Haden Guest
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Alfonso Mejía, Roberto Cobo, Estela Inda
Mexico 1950, 35mm, b/w, 80 min. Spanish with English subtitles
A bracingly frank depiction of poverty and the terrors of alienated youth, Buñuel’s breakthrough film follows a band of young boys captive to the cruel whims of their charismatic and dangerous leader, a violent teenager recently escaped from reform school. Buñuel forged a kind of raw neo-realism demanding a strikingly atypical cinematography from Gabriel Figueroa who eschewed the ennobling shadows of his work for Emilio Fernandez for a harsher kind of direct light, as glaring and unfiltered as Buñuel’s unsparing vision of urban and moral decay. Los olvidados deeply offended Mexican critics and audiences who punished the film with scathing reviews on its first release, calling it a deliberate affront to the Mexican nation and almost successfully burying Buñuel’s early masterpiece, until it was rescued by the efforts of poet and then cultural ambassador Octavio Paz who championed the film at Cannes where it would win Buñuel the prize for best director. A stingingly pessimistic work, Los olvidados reveals family and friendship to be viciously double-edged bonds that transform a warm maternal embrace into asphyxiating stranglehold, an outstretched familiar hand into a vicious fist.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Ernesto Alonsa, Miroslava Stern,
Mexico 1955, 35mm, b/w, 89 min. Spanish with English subtitles
One of Buñuel’s most subversive and genuinely funny films, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz is a fascinating study of sexual perversity presented as a portrait of a frustrated would-be artist. Driven by an insatiable yet still unconsummated desire to murder the beautiful women who attract him, the effete Archibaldo de la Cruz finds his increasingly elaborate efforts to become a serial killer always stymied in bizarre ways. Buñuel's life-long interest in psychoanalysis is everywhere evident, from the mesmerizing primal scene recalled in flashback from the young man's childhood, to the bizarre range of sexual fetishes that recur throughout the film.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Zachary Scott, Bernie Hamilton,
Mexico/US 1960, 35mm, b/w, 95 min
An unsung masterpiece and one of two English language films directed by Buñuel during his Mexican period, The Young One is a surprisingly uncompromising study of racism and sexual desire, set on a remote island in the Deep South. A grizzled Zachary Scott stars as the racist and sexually frustrated warden of the island hunting reserve unexpectedly made guardian of a fulsome young woman, unleashing a simmering tension brought to a fever pitch by the sudden appearance on the island of a black jazz musician fleeing false accusations of rape. The island's overripe wilderness provides the ideal stage for a Buñuelian exploration of human desire as a primal and mysterious calling that seems to draw the many animals and insects that regularly appear as mute witnesses to the power struggle enacted between the men. Blacklisted screenwriter Hugo Butler provided a rich and authentic vision of the South that openly confronts racist bigotry without being sanctimonious, balancing its critique with wry humor and nuanced characters.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Silvia Pinal, Claudio Brook,
Enrique Álvarez Félix
Mexico 1965, 35mm, b/w, 45 min. Spanish with English subtitles
Perched atop a pillar in the middle of the desert in eternal penance for six years, six months, and six days, Simon – inspired by 5th century Saint Simeon Stylites – seeks spiritual purification through spectacular means. Reluctantly doling out occasional miracles, prophesies, and words of muttered wisdom to his fickle followers, Simon’s encounters elicit a string of blasphemous comedy routines occasionally anticipating those of Monty Python. His faith is ritually tested by the devil who reappears in various feminine incarnations all portrayed by the beguiling Silvia Pinal - accounting for most of the matter-of-fact surrealist moments that would become signature late Buñuel. With as ascetic an aesthetic as Simon’s, the last film Buñuel made while exiled in Mexico is a richly compact allegory. The cynical tone – balancing somewhere between mockery and sympathy – is consummated by a whirlwind ending which is as incredulously shocking as it is completely appropriate.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Arturo de Córdova, Delia Garcés,
Mexico 1952, 35mm, b/w, 92 min. Spanish with English subtitles
One of the highlights of Buñuel's Mexican period is this delirious portrait of obsessive male desire which follows a wealthy man's descent from love at first sight to blind paranoiac fear that his young wife cannot meet his ever escalating standards of ethics and purity. Reportedly famed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's favorite film, El is overripe with unshackled Freudian symbols and oneiric energy. Arturo de Córdova gives one of the great and most memorable performances of Buñuel's entire cinema in his quaking portrait of a man gripped by the fear that his heart's darkest desires might one day actually come true.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Silvia Pinal, Jaqueline Andere,
Mexico 1962, 35mm, b/w, 94 min. Spanish with English subtitles
Emerging at the dawn of his nouveau “French period,” Buñuel’s extraordinary apparition embraces the theatrical ritual of his favorite social stage, the dinner party, to famously imprison a group of well-heeled guests without explanation at a sumptuous meal in a luminous Mexico City mansion. Trapped within their own nonsensical social structure “out of politeness,” the guests realize they cannot escape their own soiree as ridiculous party banter, veiled insults and invented scandals give way to outrageous carnal depravity and animal ugliness. Buñuel elevates and abstracts political critique beyond simple satire – floating symbols like the recurrent sheep, the dream emblem par excellence. In the end the very fabric of time and space immobilizes Buñuel’s guests in discontinuity, repetition, and a confusion of reality and fantasy that draws a clear parallel to the film’s very own audience. Providing inspiration for Godard’s Weekend, The Exterminating Angel is a hysterical revolt against oppressive civilization and its willing victims.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Fernando Soler, Rosario Granados, Andrés Soler
Mexico 1949, 16mm, b/w, 92 min. Spanish with English subtitles
Buñuel's second and rarely screened Mexican film is a hilarious screwball send-up of the Mexican nouveau riche on the eve of the postwar petroleum boom. When a wealthy and hedonistic patriarch learns of his family's desire to teach him a lesson by pretending his fortune has been lost he decides to go a step further, launching a wild roller coaster of mistaken identity, sham marriages and misfired suicides. Subversive Buñuelian touches are apparent everywhere in The Great Madcap, especially in the constant fetishization of soiled feet that cuts against the requisite glamour of the Mexican studio system.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Irasema Dilián, Jorge Mistral, Lilia Prado
Mexico 1954, 35mm, b/w, 90 min. Spanish with English subtitles
A cherished project of Buñuel’s since the early 1930s when he collaborated on an adaptation of Brontë’s classic with his Land Without Bread co-writer and Surrealist author Pierre Unik, Wuthering Heights is a wonderfully faithful adaptation true to the soaring spirit of amour fou that propels the novel recklessly forward. Working with a cast of popular matinee stars and changing the setting to late 19th century rural Mexico, Buñuel's vision of Brontë is charged with a sexual energy notably absent from William Wyler's 1939 adaptation.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Lilia Prado, Carlos Navarro,
Mexico 1954, 35mm, b/w, 90 min. Spanish with English subtitles
Set in Mexico City, Illusion Travels by Streetcar tells the tale of two tram repairmen whose favorite car is about to be retired and dismantled. After protesting in vain to the management, the men decide to take the car on a drunken spree around the city for one last run. The two drive all night, picking up an eclectic group of characters along the way and then attempting to return the beloved vehicle to the depot before they are discovered. One of Buñuel’s broadest and most underrated comedies, Illusion Travels by Streetcar is a biting satire of bourgeois values that takes aim at the director’s favorite targets: Church and State.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Lilia Prado, Esteban Márquez, Luis Aceves Castañeda
Mexico 1952, 16mm, b/w, 85 min. Spanish with English subtitles
A fairy-tale like fable of a young man fighting to save his dying mother's estate from his parasitic brothers, Mexican Bus Ride makes clear Buñuel's love of Mexico with an idealized vision of rural Mexico announced in the gorgeous opening scene of newlyweds sailing out across a moonlit lake. The young man's eponymous journey to the city to notarize his mother's will gives way to a picaresque road movie with a colorful cross section of Mexican society assembled on board the ramshackle bus, an affectionate homage to Buñuel's adapted homeland that pokes gentle fun at certain national stereotypes – the self-aggrandizing politician, the oversexed vixen, the lazy driver.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Rosita Quintana, Fernando Soler,
Víctor Manuel Mendoza
Mexico 1951, 35mm, b/w, 82 min. Spanish with English subtitles
A raging tempest dramatically releases a beautiful and deranged young inmate from her cell and into the ranch home of an unsuspecting wealthy landowner family in Buñuel’s little known Susana. Never explaining the malady nor the motives of his bewitching heroine as she sets out to systematically wreck the family from within, Buñuel erects his first dark monument to the dangerous powers of female sexuality in this study of willfully destructive desire. Susana showcases the subversive mode of genre cinema that is a signature of Buñuel’s Mexican films, with Buñuel here deconstructing the family melodrama, revealing each of its archetypical characters – the tiring patriarch, the protective mother, the sheltered son and scion – to be paper thin constructions, brittle kindling for the young woman’s gleeful flame. A fascinating companion piece to Pasolini’s Teorema and Buñuel’s later Belle de Jour, Susana simultaneously reads as a black comedy and a devastating critique of the Mexican family.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Rosario Granados, Julio Villarreal,
Mexico 1952, 35mm, b/w, 85 min. Spanish with English subtitles
A more reserved side of Buñuel is revealed in this moving adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant story about a long-suffering wife and mother who falls desperately in love with a kinder, younger man who promises her the kind of caring relationship she has longed for. Held back by love for her son and obligation to her cold-hearted husband, the woman is torn by the wrenching pulls of love and duty. While more stylistically restrained than his other Mexican films, A Woman Without Love is also forcibly direct in its attack on the cruel indifference towards women of marriage and motherhood and social institutions.
Directed by Luis Buñuel. With Pedro Armendáriz, Katy Jurado,
Mexico 1952, 35mm, b/w, 83 min. Spanish with English subtitles
Pedro Armendáriz and Katy Jurado bring a sultry sexuality to Buñuel’s remarkable study of machismo and abusive power relationships. Armendáriz is El Bruto, an almost Frankenstein-like figure, unable to control his monstrous strength and temper yet strangely sympathetic and vulnerable as he searches for companionship. Even more monstrous, however, is Jorado’s venal landlord husband who hires El Bruto to terrorize his working class tenants into accepting his exploitative terms. Partnered with Los olvidados co-writer Luis Alcoriza, Buñuel used a sharp, at times almost grotesque, caricature to deliver an angry, deeply cynical vision of class warfare and inequity.