To Free the Spirit
The Films of Luis Buñuel
feature by Patty-Lynne Herlevi, 14 April 2000

Born to wealthy Spanish parents at the turn of the previous century, Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who later rebelled against his upbringing, left a legacy of shocking and always provocative films behind.   Labeled an anarchist by some and a socialist by himself when it served his purpose, Buñuel also considered himself to be a devout atheist, often mocking the rituals of the Catholic Church to its dismay.  Buñuel’s films also portray his disdain for the wealthy set (Belle De Jour, Tristana, The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois). While the writer-director’s biting wit and surrealist images won’t appeal to those individuals with conservative taste, the art he created proves to be as significant as his former compatriot Salvador Dali’s paintings or Garcia Lorca’s plays.  Moody to extremes, Buñuel was to the Spanish film industry what Fellini was to the Italian film industry despite Buñuel’s sudden exile from his homeland during Franco’s regime.  In fact, Buñuel and Fellini had a lot more in common than their mockery of the Catholic Church and upper classes since both filmmakers evoked images from their rich dream lives in their works.

Although Buñuel made an early start on his career when he directed, wrote and produced the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou with Salvador Dali in 1928, the Spanish filmmaker suffered many slumps in his career, produced numerous unsuccessful films during the time he spent in Mexico (from the late '40s through the '50s) and he suffered from extreme hearing loss.  In 1961, Buñuel returned to Spain to make the film Viridiana despite having to work under the scrutiny of Franco’s tight restrictions.  The film was banned in Spain, but it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  Following Viridiana, the filmmaker would go on to direct successful films in Mexico (Exterminating Angel), France (Belle Du Jour) and his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) would be filmed in both Spain and France.

Not always obvious in his work, the filmmaker’s films would some times suffer from editing problems since the director prioritized staying within a budget rather than covering all of his shots.  Fortunately, he worked with some of the best cinematographers in the business including Gabriel Figueroa (Exterminating Angel, Nazarin).  Buñuel also had a fetish for women’s shoes that he emphasized in Viridiana and Tristana.

The Seattle Art Museum’s film series features Buñuel classics, rare films from his exile years in Mexico and his later work when he worked with the legendary Catherine Deneuve and Fernando Rey. Beginning with the double bill, Un Chien Andalou and Los Olvidados on April 6th and ending with his last film That Obscure Object of Desire on June 8, 2000, the Buñuel Film Series allows audiences to delve deep into their subconscious and see the stuff of which art is made.

Following is the series’ schedule and short descriptions on each film.

April 6: Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog)-1928, Spain, with Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned)- 1950, Mexico. Un Chien Andalou written, produced and directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali still has the power to shock audiences.  This silent film runs Sixteen minutes in length and is accompanied by tango music composed by Buñuel who also stars in the film along with Dalì and an ensemble of Spanish actors.  Most famous for a scene where a man slices a woman’s eyeball with a razor blade and a decaying donkey corpse that lies on top of a piano, Un Chien Andalou delves into the irrational life of dreams and leaves a lasting impression behind.

Bunuel wrote and directed Los Olvidados during his exile years in Mexico.  Comparable to the American films Rebel without a Cause or Blackboard Jungle, Los Olvidados deals with restless and impoverished youth living on the streets in Mexico City.  Graphic in nature, Buñuel takes a compassionate and unsentimental stare at poverty, violence and the lack of love in the lives of Mexican youth.  Bunuel won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, despite outrage from Mexican audiences.

April 13: El (1953, Mexico), deals with obsession, desire and paranoia and the plot sounds similar to Claude Chabrol’s L’Efer.  Don Francisco (Arturo De Cordova) falls in love with Gloria (Delia Garces) who he seduces away from her architect suitor (Luis Beristain).  They marry and hell breaks lose after Don Francisco begins imagining that Gloria is cheating on him.  Like Chabrol’s film, Don Francisco’s madness takes over and in this case, his wife flees from him only to later find the possessed man living out his years as a monk at a monastery.

The Seattle Art Museum Film Series managed to track down a copy of this rare film and it is a must-see for true Buñuel aficionados.

April 20: Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1953, Mexico) follows a more comical plot that revolves around two Mexican streetcar drivers’ (Tarrajos and Juanito) adventures as they steal and run a streetcar after being laid off from their job.  Filled with anarchy and a sense of liberation, the drivers expose two con women who use Christ as a weapon and mobsters who have illegally stockpile grain.  Illusion Travels by Streetcar stars Carlos Navarro, Domingo Soler and Fernando Soler.

April 27: The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz (1955, Mexico).  Buñuel revisits the themes of murder, passion and seduction in this story about Archibaldo (Ernesto Alonso) a spoiled lad who is left at home with his alluring governess.  As Archi opens his beloved music box, a stray bullet kills the governess fusing sexual desire and murder in the young boy’s mind.  As in other Buñuel films, the dichotomy of saint and criminal are explored here in a true surreal fashion that delves into subconscious wish fulfillment.

May 4: Nazarin (1959, Mexico).  For a director who claims to have been an atheist, Bunuel explores religious themes in his adaptation of Benitez Perez’s story of religious faith and earthly human shortcomings.  Nazarin revolves around the Christ-like character Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal) and his determination to spread goodness and charity among the people who would rather pursue their sexual yearnings than religious pursuits.  Like Christ, the aspiring saint is mocked, beaten and imprisoned, but experiences an awakening.  Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who later became famous for shooting Hollywood Westerns, beautifully captures Buñuel’s adapted screenplay.

May 11: Viridiana (Spain, 1961).  After Franco’s regime allowed Buñuel to return to Spain to direct his film Viridiana, fellow Spanish exiles and filmmakers thought that Buñuel had sold out to Franco.  However, the subversive film that emerged won the Palme d’ Or award at Cannes also fell under scrutiny in Spain, not to mention censors from the Catholic church.  In this story a young Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) wishing to join the convent finds herself the object of her uncles’ desire when she visits him.  Overcome with the girl’s resemblance to his deceased wife, the uncle played by Fernando Rey comes close to seducing the girl, but instead hangs himself with a child’s jump rope.  Filled with guilt and remorse, the saintly Viridiana decides to spread charity to the region’s outcast only to be taken advantage of by their blasphemous deeds.

May 18: Exterminating Angel (1962, Mexico).  Buñuel revisits his surrealist roots exposing the bedeviled upper classes in this film about opera patrons who retire to a salon for dinner and then but for some absurd reason are unable to cross the thresh hold and exit the room.  The servants leave, but the patrons stay for days where they experience hunger, a police raid, madness, suicide and the invasion of sheep.  Complete with biting humor, Exterminating Angel’s plot saves it from the irrational spirit that pervades Un Chien Andalou, but the surreal film still offers no rational explanation for why the patrons can not leave the house.  Similar to horrifying episodes of The Twilight Zone television series, Exterminating Angel serves biting wit along with caviar. 

May 25: Belle De Jour (1966, France).  One of Buñuel’s more popular films, Belle De Jour stars the luminous and seductive French actress Catherine Deneuve who plays a bored bourgeois housewife who finds sexual fulfillment through prostitution.  In a role that Ms Deneuve claims opened her up as an actress, she portrays the most dignified prostitute ever to grace the silver screen. 

The film’s images provoke beautiful and startling surrealistic moments.  Buñuel successfully blends Severine’s (Deneuve) sadomasochistic dreams in which her successful husband tortures her with her existence as a bored housewife.  Eventually the director blurs the boundaries between Severine’s dreams and reality while distorting the fabric of the film in a flawless fashion.  The question remains why would Severine, a woman who loves her husband, but remains frigid in her marriage, seek erotic encounters with strangers?

Eventually, Severine involves herself with a gangster and through a series of events, the bored housewife and secret prostitute’s worlds collide leaving her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) with the decision of staying or leaving his wife.

June 1: Tristana (1970) based on a novel by Benitez Perez Galdos, stars Catherine Deneuve as Tristana and Fernando Rey as Don Lope, her lecherous guardian.  The film’s plot revolves around Tristana who recently lost her mother and has been taken into Don Lope’s care.  At first, Don Lope acts fatherly towards the young Tristana doling out fatherly affections, but soon those affections turn sexual and Tristana reluctantly loses her innocence and becomes Don Lope’s mistress. 

However, Tristana meets a young artist (Franco Nero) with whom she falls in love and escapes as a form of rebellion.  Several years later she returns to Don Lope because she has developed a tumor in her leg.  After her leg is amputated so are the woman’s affections and the tables are turned on Don Lope.

Filled with biting sarcasm and comical moments, especially the scene where Tristana paces the upstairs on crutches while Don Lope and his compatriots involve themselves in a game of cards downstairs.  The manic look on Deneuve’s face while she plunders on one leg and crutches while the men play a calm game of cards proves to be a hysterical moment for whatever reason.  As is the image of Don Lope’s head swinging from a church bell that appears in Tristana’s reoccurring nightmares.  Tristana proves to be a dark comedy in its highest form

Deneuve wonderfully transforms from innocent gamine to a vengeful and crazed woman while her costar Fernando Rey delivers an equally compelling transformation.  Tristana that features gorgeous photographic images of rural Spain by Jose F. Aguayo offers an incredibly entertaining film and probably one of Buñuel’s best-adapted screenplays.

June 8: That Obscure Object Of Desire (1977), Buñuel’s last film ends the film series. Based on the novel La Femme et Le Pantin by French author Pierre Couys, That Obscure Object of Desire explores the dichotomy of women as whores or virgins while featuring two actresses, the French Carole Bouquet and the Spanish actress Angela Molina playing the same character.

A genteel widower, Mathieu (played by Buñuel’s alter ego, Fernando Rey) falls in love with his young, sexy maid Conchita.  Unfortunately he can’t tell if Conchita is only toying with his affections or if she’s playing a wicked game with him.  She says she’s a virgin, but she acts like a whore, Flamenco dancing in the nude for tourists in Seville or pretending to have sex with her guitarist.  Mathieu turns out to be a weak man controlled by the spell Conchita casts over him.  He can’t stand to be humiliated by the coquette, but he keeps returning for more punishment only to have his life explode in front of him in the end.

The story is shown through flashbacks as Mathieu shares the story of his relationship to passengers on a train (including a dwarf psychiatrist).  Buñuel blends the past and the present seamlessly as do the actresses playing the same character and sometimes during the same scene.  Fernando Rey expertly plays a man who destroys himself while pursuing his obsessions.  Although he plays similar roles in the films Viridiana and Tristana, he always manages to capture the pathos and sinister aspects of his characters while portraying the vulnerability of a fallen man.  And in That Obscure Object Of Desire, Rey plays his role over the backdrop of Flamenco music and the vibrant culture of Spain’s Andalusian region.

While many film directors eventually sell out as their careers take off, Luis Buñuel took more risks, still shocking audiences with his last film in 1977 as he did with Un Chien Andalou in 1928.  The Spanish director’s older films have aged well like a good wine and his later films appear to be the cherry on top of a magnificent career in which his fans are the lucky recipients.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.