Buñuel in Mexico

Luis Buñuel’s Wuthering Heights (1954)

“Buñuel’s Mexican period is perhaps his most important,” suggests Guillermo del Toro. “He tackles themes that consolidate him as a filmmaker.” In her program notes for Buñuel in Mexico, the series that ran at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976—just before Buñuel’s seventy-sixth birthday and one year before he completed his final feature, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)—the late Adrienne Mancia pointed out that each of the films the Spanish director made in Mexico, from Gran Casino (1947) through Simon of the Desert (1965), “reveals something of his private obsessions, his incisive observations, his penetrating wit and black humor, his exasperation with human folly and pettiness, and his ever-rebellious attitude toward bourgeois morality.”

Nearly half a century later, from this Thursday through February 20, MoMA will once again present Buñuel in Mexico, and many of the twenty-one films will be projected from 35 mm prints from Mexican archives. Though he had quietly worked on several highly commercial projects for the Spanish production company Filmófono in the 1930s, when Buñuel arrived in the States in 1938—first to dabble in Hollywood for a year, but then to put in some serious work on documentaries for MoMA’s Film Department—he was still known almost exclusively for Un chien andalou (1929), the surrealist short he made with Salvador Dalí, and L’âge d’or (1930), the hour-long assault on bourgeois values he completed on his own after falling out with Dalí.

Throughout his filmmaking career, Buñuel “always stayed true to those primary surrealist principles with which he most identified,” wrote Adrian Martin in 2020: “a spirit of revolt; the subversive power of passionate love, both romantic and erotic; a belief in the creativity of the unconscious (dreams and fantasies); a pronounced taste for black humor; and, last but never least, an abiding contempt for institutional religion and its representatives.” And “what Buñuel learned” in Mexico “was how to bring his surrealist impulses within the limits of traditional genre and narrative.”

At the peak of Mexican cinema’s Golden Age, Buñuel teamed up with producer Oscar Dancigers, a Russian Jew who had fled the Nazis for Mexico City. Their first collaboration, Gran Casino, flopped—despite featuring two of Latin America’s most popular entertainers, Libertad Lamarque and Jorge Negrete. Their second film, though, The Great Madcap (1949), a comedy with megastar Fernando Soler, took off at the box office.

The film’s success allowed Buñuel to make one of the most ferocious “one for me” snapbacks in cinema history. In Los olvidados (The Forgotten, 1950), the kids roaming the slums of Mexico City are hardly the cuddly Bowery boys of Hollywood lore. They’re vicious and petty, and they do not hesitate to punch down.

In her program notes, Adrienne Mancia gathered quotes from several critics writing about Los olvidados, including a passage from a 1967 essay by Raymond Durgnat: “Buñuel’s tragedy has a curious way with pity: he refuses to indulge it. Instead, the atrocious and the derisory, treated with caustic lucidity, stun it, just as they stun revulsion.” Critics and audiences alike initially rejected Los olvidados, but the film found a champion in Octavio Paz, who campaigned to have it submitted to Cannes, where Buñuel won the award for Best Director.

In the fall of 2022, Patrick Preziosi wrote a series of capsule reviews of several of Buñuel’s Mexican films, including Susana (1951), starring Rosita Quintana as a woman who seduces every man on a well-heeled ranch. “The lurid conceit fits well with Buñuel’s amoral objectivity,” finds Preziosi. “Buñuel’s Mexican period can play like an analogue to [Detour director Edgar G.] Ulmer,” suggests Preziosi in his notes on El bruto (1953). The final act of Wuthering Heights (1954) is “bizarrely moving, full of prayers and elemental mysticism (and perhaps a latent desire for necrophilia), before Buñuel blows it up with a shock of violence straight from L’âge d’or.

For Slant’s Ed Gonzalez, Él (1953), in which a well-to-do Catholic (Arturo de Córdova) directs his jealous rage at his wife (Delia Garcés), “remains one of Luis Buñuel’s crowning achievements,” and Gonzalez pulls a quote from Buñuel’s great autobiography My Last Sigh (1983): “Ironically, there’s absolutely nothing Mexican about Él; it’s simply the portrait of a paranoiac, who, like a poet, is born, not made.”

In The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), a would-be serial killer (Ernesto Alonso) keeps finding his would-be victims dead before he can murder them. “You identify with the hero not because the director imposes a perverted aestheticism on the moral issues involved,” wrote Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice in 1962, “but because the protagonist is so pathetically hooked by his obsession. Actually, he is rather clumsy as well, and like Hitchcock, Buñuel implicates his audience in its desire to see the poor creep succeed just once with his evil plans.”

Starring Simone Signoret as a prostitute, Charles Vanel as an illegal diamond miner, and Michel Piccoli as a missionary in an unnamed Latin American country, the French-Mexican production Death in the Garden (1956) is an adaptation of the novel by José-André Lacour with contributions to the screenplay from experimental novelist Raymond Queneau. “Though the film’s first half is fraught by the heavy machinations of plot,” writes Gonzalez, “things take a turn for the surreal when the refugees escape into the jungle.” Fernando F. Croce notes that Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre inspirations are visible throughout.”

In 1972, Leonid Kozlov managed to coax a ranked list of the ten greatest films of all time for Sight and Sound from Andrei Tarkovsky. Nazarín (1959), the story of a persecuted priest who comes to believe he has been divinely blessed, takes the #3 spot on the list. As Patrick Gamble notes, in his book Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky describes Buñuel as “the bearer, above all else, of poetic consciousness.”

In 1960, fascist dictator Francisco Franco invited Buñuel to return to Spain and shoot a feature, and as Michael Wood details in a 2006 essay, to the surprise of just about everyone, Buñuel accepted the offer. And to the surprise of just about no one, the project blew up in Franco’s face. Viridiana (1961), produced by Gustavo Alatriste and starring his wife, Silvia Pinal, as a nun who opens up the estate of her wealthy uncle (Fernando Rey) to the poor, was “banned in Spain, condemned by the Vatican, and awarded top prize at Cannes,” as Michael Atkinson succinctly put in the Voice in 2006.

MoMA’s program notes include a comment on Viridiana from Guillermo del Toro: “Along with Nazarín, this is Buñuel’s indictment of the condescension of charity. In both works, Buñuel creates Sadean parables about impossibly altruistic souls interacting tragically with a world full of appetite and impulse.” Looking back on her work with Buñuel in 2016, Pinal noted that a friend once commented that, with The Exterminating Angel (1962), Buñuel invented the reality show. Pinal agreed.

After a night at the opera, a bundle of wealthy guests arrive at a mansion in Mexico City—twice, for whatever reason—and soon realize that they cannot leave. Programming a retrospective of Buñuel’s Mexican films for the Harvard Film Archive in 2012, Haden Guest noted that “ridiculous party banter, veiled insults, and invented scandals give way to outrageous carnal depravity and animal ugliness . . . 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.”

Pinal, Alatriste, and Buñuel teamed up again for Simon of the Desert (1965). Liberties are taken in this telling of the story of the fifth-century Syrian saint Simeon Stylites, who lived much of his life on top of a pillar jutting up from the sands. The Devil arrives in the form of Pinal, who tries to tempt him back down to earth. “Buñuel’s wit is piercingly sharp,” wrote MoMA curator Dave Kehr when he was still at the Chicago Reader, “his timing impeccable, and his visual style superbly unobtrusive and naturalistic—proving again how much realism is required in surrealism.”

Buñuel claimed that Simon of the Desert runs just forty-five minutes because Alatriste ran out of money, but Pinal countered that Simon was originally planned as one of three medium-length films in an anthology, but because Fellini insisted on casting his wife, Giulietta Masina, and Jules Dassin wanted to direct his wife, Melina Mercouri, in roles meant for Pinal, the other two films never got off the ground. Regardless, while Simon became Buñuel’s last Mexican production before launching a new phase of his career with Belle de jour (1967), his home base for the rest of his days remained Mexico.

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