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Luis Buñuel


By Miguel Ángel Barroso
Luis Buñuel (above)

Filmmaker Luis Buñuel was born in Spain but was not born anywhere in Spain: he was born in Aragón, but not anywhere in Aragon: he was born in Calanda, which is not anywhere to be born. Calanda is a town in the region of Bajo Aragón, province of Teruel. Its current name comes from the Celtiberians; A Celtic pre-Roman settlement that settled there with the name of Kolenda; These inhabitants inhabited the Iberian Peninsula from the Bronze Age, almost at the end of this period, which developed in the thirteenth century BC.

It is not a simple thing to start an article about Luis Buñuel, talking about these things, especially since he was very fond of being Aragonese, but above all, Calandino, very, very Calandino. The world has known this peculiar people, thanks to him, who has carried him everywhere, with pride and love of affectionate father. Who does not know “the drums of Calanda? Buñuel, has made them famous, not only because he has used them in his movies, but because he himself came every year to his hometown, and played the drums with the rest of the people, from the “Break of the hour” On Holy Friday, until Holy Saturday at fourteen o’clock, when the roll-over stops. Calanda is a municipality with a special climate: the summers are very hot and long, but the winters are quite mild and do not last long. This allows the flourishing of some unique products such as the famous “Peaches of Calanda”, whose denomination of origin is known all over the world.

Thus, of a people as special as Calanda, could not leave, but a true genius, an absolute artist, whose art is unique and non-transferable; As Woody Allen put it, referring to him: “One can do cinema in the manner of Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini, but it is impossible to copy the style of Luis Buñuel.” And he was right, because this was the trio of directors who have influenced the New York filmmaker the most, and so has reflected in several of his films, but we have never seen any that evoke the cinema of Buñuel.

Luis Buñuel, had a unique life, marked by the dramatic events of a Spain that would enter a bloody Civil War, leaving as a result more than a million dead and disappeared between 1936 and 1939. Buñuel adheres to the Republican side and finally, Has to be exiled from the country, before the imminent advance of the national troops, led by General Franco, that would establish in Spain a bloody dictatorship of almost forty years.

There are several phases within the cinema of Luis Buñuel; The most significant, undoubtedly, is the Surrealist stage, with two key films for this movement: Un Chien Andalou, 1928; And L’age D’or, 1930, both made in France. The first is a short film, where the filmmaker exposes a series of sequences, apparently unconnected, characteristic of the surrealist movement, whose effects, provoke in the viewer very different sensations; the film, is remembered, above all, by the famous sequence in which a man (played by Buñuel himself), a razor in hand, tears a woman’s eye, cutting the eyeball in a totally explicit way.

Cult Critic Film Magazine: Deep Focus - Luis Bunuel
Catherine Deneuve from Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour” (above), 1967

This terrible, unsettling and ferociously iconoclastic image was obtained by filming the eye of a dead donkey. But the important thing of this brutal sequence, is not the efectismo, nor its gratuitous violence; But its humanistic intentionality; The plot, goes beyond these “simplicity,” as Buñuel himself would say. Images seek the absolute, the romantic passion unleashed and romantic, the chiaroscuro of the soul. Naturally, this ferocity provoked the angry reactions of the bourgeois class and, above all, of the more reactionary right. A great filmmaker was born!

With L’age D’or (financed by the viscount of Noailles, who left Buñuel with absolute freedom), the filmmaker went a step further, and with a comfortable budget for the time, he rolled sixty minutes stained of all his later universe. Again, the fiercest surrealism was afloat, but this time, iconic and representative characters appeared, both in the history of mankind and in the arts: Jesus Christ himself, or the controversial writer De Sade, represented by the characters of His most terrible work: Les cent vingt journées de Sodome. The end of this film, is also remembered worldwide, because the rolls of the drums of Calanda appear, in a cadenza sequence where they leave a castle Jesus Christ and the libertines of the Marquess of Sade, who, as those who have read this atrocious novel , Have committed all kinds of sexual and criminal abuse. Again, the premiere of the film, caused great disturbances in the cinema of Paris where it was exhibited, and caused its prohibition in France until the year 1981.

Five years later, Luis Buñuel, who had returned to Spain, directed a short film focusing on a very poor locality of Extremadura, called Las Hurdes, title that also gave name to the film. At this moment, in Spain, the republic had been established, and King Alfonso XIII had gone into exile. Although one would think that the republican government would support the film, it did not, and even went on to prohibit it. On the other hand, Buñuel, worked in very precarious conditions, having to edit the film on a kitchen table. This documentary is a ruthless and uncompromising portrayal of sentimentality, of a depressed area of deep Spain that, which naturally, could not be liked by political institutions. Buñuel showed in the flesh, the desolation of those people left by the hand of God, whose life was a struggle for survival, in the worst conditions one could imagine: there was illiteracy, lack of hygiene, they did not have the basic services of Water and light; They seemed abandoned to their fate, and that was what the film denounced. Undoubtedly this documentary is one of the most unique works that has been done within the genre.

Exiled in Mexico, Buñuel, agrees to shoot a series of “food” films, as he called them, in order to support his family and, of course, move forward with his dream of directing filmmakers. This stage was one of the most discussed by the specialized critic of his filmography, since they did not appreciate the internal values that Buñuel printed in its construction. These films were exaggerated melodramas, very bad about the script, but the filmmaker had turned them around in his filmic conception, since he always wanted to experiment with the narrative, and try to give form to those stories, seemingly outrageous, integrating within them, His surrealist concept; But above all, his ideal of the Romantic movement, so dear to all members of the Surrealist movement.

And this fructified in a series of Mexican films that today are cataloged like important and not insignificant works: Gran casino, 1946; Susana demonio y carne, 1950; Una mujer sin amor, 1951, Subida al cielo, 1951; El bruto, 1952, etc. In this series of films, seemingly “mediocre”, the Aragonese filmmaker, had free field to develop with absolute freedom, all the creative means that a filmmaker can exercise: narrative, interpretations, internal cohesion and, above all, intelligence to turn around To the issues: if I have a ridiculous melodrama, why not make it intense, full of human passions on the edge of the abyss, and thus save the emptiness of the script to get a real movie? And so he did.

Cult Critic Deep Focus: Luis Buñuel
Los Olvidados, 1950

In the midst of these films, Luis Buñuel shot a masterpiece: Los Olvidados (1950), which told the story of a group of teenagers in the Mexican capital, led by a cruel character named Jaibo, who is still another victim. The film, endowed with a strong eroticism, received international accolades and definitively consecrated to the director. The Mexican stage is accompanied by several admirable films, some of them mastery: He, 1952, tells the story of a man obsessed and tortured by jealousy, whose self-destruction is inevitable. It is also one of Buñuel’s favorite films.

Abismos de Pasión, 1953, is an adaptation to the cinema of the novel Wuthering Heights, of the romantic writer Emily Bronte, of which many adaptations have been made to the big screen. Although Buñuel hated this film, mainly because he did not like the work of the actors, he has not aged at all with the passage of time, and remains as one of the summits of the cinema of exaltation of love “fou”, which Continues beyond death with more passion, if possible, than in life itself.

Cult Critic Deep Focus - Luis Buñuel
Ensayo de un crimen (La vida criminal de Archibaldo de la Cruz), 1955, turns out to be a new style in its staging, without betraying its aesthetic and ideological postulates.

It can be said that this film is a starting point for the filmmaker, who finally takes the reins of his career, to make only personal films from that moment. Buñuel, tells the story of a man who has been traumatized since he saw his governess being shot when he was a child. The almost obscene vision of her bare legs (and fetishism is very present in all the Aragonese cinema), has provoked in Archibaldo a criminal impulse towards beautiful women, to whom he must assassinate irremediably. The film was covered in tragic tints, since after the premiere, in a few days, its female protagonist, Miroslava, committed suicide because of a love deception with bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín.

After a brief period in France; Land in which he will culminate his future and great cinema until the end of his days, filmed in Mexico: Nazarín, 1958, which is his first adaptation of a novel, one of the emblematic writers of the Spanish realist novel, Benito Pérez Galdós , Whom Buñuel did not value much during his youth. It is also his first collaboration with the Spanish actor, Francisco Rabal, with whom he maintained close friendship until the end of his life.

Cult Critic Deep Focus - Luis Buñuel
In Spain, he obtains financing to shoot one of his most emblematic films and that provoked the scandal of the pro-Franco regime: “Viridiana”, 1961.

With clear influences of the writer mentioned above, the film tells the story of a novice, who returns from the convent to spend a few days in the house of her uncle and protector, who, only thinks about having sex with her, Astounding with his late wife. Again we find the Buñuel fetishist, irreverent with religion, and demolisher of the social hypocrisies that, in this film, leads to its final consequences. On the other hand, he also exposes his idea that charity is not positive, because whoever practices it really is vilified by that bourgeois society that rejects the martyrs, since these, only walk in the company of the poor and poor people lifetime. Viridiana, obtains the maximum award in the Film Festival of Cannes, although due to the Spanish censorship, it has to renounce its nationality and to take the Mexican one to be distributed in the world.

Cult Critic Deep Focus - Luis Buñuel
But his most controversial, fascinating and destabilizing film was yet to come: El ángel Exterminador, 1962, whose deep imprint has not failed to inspire great filmmakers around the world.

El Ángel exterminador tells a simple story: some aristocrats invite their great mansion to a group of people to celebrate the success of an opera singer. Everything goes well, until the guests want to leave the house, and realize that a strange and mysterious force does not let them go through the door, so that they remain locked up, until they run out of food and lose their dignity like people.

The film is a great portrait of human behavior, raised within the highest social class, as is the aristocracy and the high-level bourgeoisie. But Bunuel, as always, did not give answers to his metaphors, or to his apparent symbols, or to his “hidden messages,” as the specialized critique endeavored to prove again and again. This annoyed him a bit, though to a greater extent, he was amused by all these intellectual ideas about his cinema. The only clue the filmmaker gave about this hermetic film was as follows: The best explanation is pure poetry, and nobody asks you to explain a poem. Or at least, it should not.

We arrive at the French stage of Luis Buñuel, and here, both critics and spectators, are usually divided in their preferences: some love Buñuel in Spanish, especially the Mexican stage, and others applaud the greater intellectualism of the French stage. But those who love Bunuel without asking anything in return, because everything gives us naked and precious as a dawn light or a haze cloud, we surrender to him in body and soul and enjoy all his filmography completely, Without a doubt, one of the most coherent of all the history of the cinema.

And why is this? The explanation, perhaps, would have to be found in which Buñuel recovers its surrealist roots, and builds the rest of his filmography according to the rules of absurd narrative and the lack of plot logic, to exhale his last breath of great artist.

They are just five, the films entirely French that Buñuel directs in a span of eleven years. In all of them, he collaborates with a talented young writer called Jean-Claude Carrière, with whom Buñuel found the perfect communion for his most intimate and contradictory dreams. But here we can trace the meaning of all his life and work: contradiction, yes, but contradiction assumed, intellectualized and profoundly cultured, to find that holy Grail, which we all seek in one way or another in our life.

We can highlight two masterpieces of this French stage: Belle de Jour, 1966, which undoubtedly is a superb mosaic of all its obsessions and beliefs, embodied in the character of Sévérine (Catherine Deneuve), a wealthy bourgeois who by day Prostitute in a brothel with the name of Bella of day, because its schedules are exclusively of 2 to 5 of the afternoon. The film is based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, which has many parallels with the Marquis de Sade, whose influence we discussed in the director’s first work.

Of all the sequences, there remains for the history of cinema, that of Sévérine’s dream, of an apparently idyllic tone, which soon becomes perverse: Sévérine, travels in a horse-drawn carriage with her husband through a kind of park dyed Autumn (a wonderful photograph with brownish and yellowish tones), when she is violently dragged by the coachman to a tree, where she is tied and whipped immediately, with a whip on her bare back, before the attentive gaze of her husband. The sequence breathes equally eroticism and sensuality, as morbid and perversion.

Cult Critic Film Magazine: Luis BuñuelAnd Le Charme discret de la Bourgeoisie, (Japanese poster shown) 1972, where the filmmaker explores the rituals of the bourgeoisie, ridiculing all their daily acts.

In this film, Buñuel emphasizes the surreal tone, and the narrative finds a freedom that is devoid of any artifice to justify a narrative logic, as it still was in Belle de Jour. The most famous sequence is one in which a group of very elegantly dressed diners sit down to eat in toilets, instead of chairs, and behave quite naturally, conversing with any banality before the astonishment of the spectators.

The film won the Hollywood Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film; And that despite the fact that the director, in one of his usual jokes, had told the press that he had paid the Academy of Hollywood to be handed the precious statuette. This boutade, he tells us clearly, was his stance against the banality of the industrial world of cinema.

We cannot end this article, without mentioning the new Spanish parenthesis of Luis Buñuel: Tristana, 1970.

The film is again starring Catherine Deneuve, who had to work hard to convince the master to give her the role, since Buñuel had not liked the behavior of the actress in Belle de Jour. He accepted it and was not mistaken. She also did not lie to him when she told him that she had learned the lesson, and that she would do a great job. Today, this film would not be the same without the presence of this formidable actress. Tristana is the second adaptation that Buñuel makes of a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, and has many similarities with Viridiana.

The film tells the story of a young girl named Tristana, who, being orphaned, is welcomed by a Spanish hidalgo entered in years, called Don Lope, who, soon becomes her lover, provoking the hatred of the young woman, who He will never forgive him and end up turning his life into hell. The narrative form that this time Buñuel designs for the film, has a more linear tone than his French films, which are entirely dedicated to experimentation; But it is not a fault at all, but quite the contrary; This narrative style gives sobriety to history, and each plane is itself a movie. It is so exquisite the staging, that there is no such work in the art of cinematography.



Cult Critic The Film MagazineMiguel Ángel Barroso is a dedicated and published Film Historian. His credits include organizing numerous international film festivals and authoring several books including “The Hundred Best Films of Italian Cinema History” (2008) and “The Hundred Best Films of the 20th Century” (2009). Miguel organized the videoconference, “The Unforgettable Anna Magnani”, in tribute to the actress Anna Magnani on the centenary of his birth, held at the Italian Cultural Instituto Madrid.


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