‘I had so little interest in Latin America that I used to tell my friends that should I suddenly drop out of sight one day, I might be anywhere- except there…’
One often finds it near impossible in life to accurately predict where the winding path may take us in the end. And for every curveball that fate tossed at Luis Buñuel Portolés, he was inevitably ready to obliterate it over the fence… submerged in the long grass and weeds somewhere next to a ball of preconceived notions and conventionality.
A proficient artist, writer, violinist, boxer and political activist among other things, Spain’s greatest filmmaker certainly left an indelible mark on cinema. With a distinguishable style that was respected by many in the industry, or as Ingmar Bergman put it: ‘Buñuel nearly always made Buñuel films’.
Never one to shy away from controversy, the father of surrealist cinema was scathing in his creative portrayals of class, capitalism and the church. Bold, fearless and intuitive, Buñuel successfully challenged his audience with symbolism, elements of the absurd and psychological themes in a career that lasted for nearly half a century.
Yet, strangely enough there is a particular period in the middle of Buñuel’s career that is not as often mentioned within creative circles as the films that book-end his lengthy filmography. This was a period of methodical productivity for Buñuel, who was beginning to stamp his own fingerprint on the kind of realism that would rival the likes of Vittorio De Sica or Marcel Carné. After the Spanish Civil War and a brief and awkward foray in Hollywood, Luis Buñuel boxed the family’s possessions and shipped off to Mexico City where he would live for the next thirty-six years.
‘Yet I lived in Mexico for thirty-six years and even became a citizen in 1949. At the end of the (Spanish) Civil War, many Spaniards, including some of my closest friends, sought refuge in Mexico. The expatriates came from all classes- labourers, writers, even scientists- but all seemed to adapt to their new country with relative ease’.
Buñuel shot over twenty films in Mexico, and with the exception of The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe (1954) and The Young One (1960), every film used Mexican actors and technicians, including the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (the two made seven films together and remained close friends up until the director’s death).
Buñuel approached his craft with such economy and scrupulous precision that his shooting never exceeded 24 days. Both salaries and production costs were kept at minimal spends, and he rarely deviated from the original script.
In his biography My Last Breath, Buñuel speaks with uninhibited candour about the swiftness in which he churned out these films (at times even making three a year). He tells of the financial stress involved, and the balancing act of trying to support his family and keep within budget on set. Whilst maintaining good working relationships with both cast and crew, he also explains that in some cases he had no option but to accept actors that weren’t always right for their roles.
‘When all’s said and done, however, I never made a single scene that compromised my convictions or my personal morality…’
Privilege of Legends discusses in brief five of these important films made within a period of as many years:
1. ‘Los Olvidados’ (The Young & The Damned-1950)
A crowd of onlookers mock a blind panhandler as he busks under a scorching Mexican sun. He insists he will sing for them but they will have to pay him a peso to do so:
‘I have to sing to eat beans… the beans go up, the songs go up.’
In the world of Los Olvidados it’s streets are void of any heroes- or villains for that matter. Within it’s domains, the inhabitants (mainly teenage delinquents and street youths) merely exist. Resorting to petty theft and street crime, the children are forced into a means of survival… living, hand-to-mouth in a sweltering Mexico City.
With stunning camerawork by Gabriel Figueroa, Buñuel shines a light through the cracks of an eroding class system and upon the dust-ridden slums that are inhabited by the city’s less fortunate. With low-angles, POV tracking shots at child-height and surreal dream sequences, Buñuel transports the audience to the same squalid locations and into the tiny, weathered shoes of it’s tragic protagonists.
Comparatively, the children that inhabit Los Olvidados remind one of such socially conscious films as Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), or even Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers (1966). Clearly, The Young & The Damned is the work of one who shares an intangible comprehension of the offbeat vibrancy and chaos of Mexico City’s urban sprawl. Indeed, with striking similarity to the central character of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Luis Buñuel spent several months visiting some of the poorest slums in and around Mexico City to draw inspiration for his film.
‘I watched, I listened, I asked questions. Eventually, I came to know these people, and much of what I saw went unchanged into the film…’
2. ‘Él’ (This Strange Passion-1952)
If we become the victim of our own fears and delusions, can we also- with our own hands, spin the very web that ultimately ensnares us?
With Freudian innuendo, marital taboos and neurotic mood swings, Buñuel’s richly entertaining Él is a vivid portrait of one man’s obsessive spiral into feverish psychosis as his marriage is jeopardised by his relentless self-sabotage and unrelinquished jealousy.
Surely, Arturo de Córdova’s performance in the central role is worthy of the great performances of any major Buñuel movie. His neurotic behaviour is as comical as it is inevitably cataclysmic (one can’t help but draw comparison to Albert Finney’s Oscar-nominated performance in John Huston’s Under The Volcano).
Of the film Buñuel said:
‘Ironically, there’s absolutely nothing Mexican about Él; it’s simply the portrait of a paranoiac, who, like a poet, is born, not made. Afterwards, he increasingly perceives reality according to his obsession, until everything in his life revolves around it…’
3. ‘Il Bruto’ (The Brute-1953)
The story of a brutish thug (Pedro Armendáriz) with a penchant for romance. Il Bruto irons out problems with his thick fists; whether it be as a hired goon for the local corrupt landlord or against the woman he loves (the sultry Katy Jurado).
But eventually his heavy-handed ways spell his own undoing, as the working class community match might with equal force, signalling the brute’s downfall.
Il Bruto is a wonderful example of how Buñuel’s cinema can walk that tightrope with heavy subject matter like domestic violence, masochism and social inequity on one end of the beam, elements of the absurd and dark humour maintaining balance at it’s opposite end.
4. ‘La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía’ (Illusion Travels By Streetcar-1954)
‘This film is but another anecdote, simple and almost trivial, of life in the working poverty-stricken classes of common people… those who travel by streetcar.’
Beginning with various aerial and street-level images of Mexico City’s vibrant metropolitan areas, the narrator’s voiceover sets up the action to take place amongst the city’s transport system that carries most of it’s working class.
When a couple of mechanics repair streetcar 133 they soon learn- much to their chagrin, that the vehicle is to be scrapped in the ‘graveyard’ and replaced with a newer model. After drowning their melancholy moods with cheap alcohol, the pair hatch a plan to take their beloved iron horse on one last voyage.
La Ilusión viaja en Tranvía is Luis Buñuel’s clever satirical comedy that pulls no punches with it’s scathing depiction of church and state… lines of shoppers frustrated at the exorbitant price hikes of the local grocer, a couple of workers discuss inflation and the uneven distribution of wealth, an American tourist labels a streetcar worker a communist because he offers her a free ride.
In one particularly memorable scene, the bureaucrat behind the desk reminds the two streetcar mechanics that:
‘Too much of anything can be detrimental… even efficiency’.
5.‘Ensayo de un Crimen’ (The Criminal Life Of Archibaldo de la Cruz-1955)
It’s almost pathetic to watch Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonsa) as he fumbles his way through murderous intentions that seem to be constantly thwarted by his severe ineptness for the task.
Torn between his conflicting urges of saint and sinner, Ensayo de un Crimen is peppered throughout with dark humour and elements of psychoanalysis, as we follow the protagonist from child to awkward adult as he tries to ensnare a bunch of beautiful women into his homicidal trap. In fact, our protagonist is more a victim of his own insatiable desires and sexual fetishes than he is a dangerous man. This is precisely what makes the cinema of Luis Buñuel so devilishly entertaining.
Buñuel also speaks of what he described as Mexico’s ‘gun cult’ at the time, in which everybody seemed to be carrying a pistol of some sort onto the set. When recording the music for Ensayo de un Crimen he recalls:
‘Thirty musicians arrived at the studio one very hot day, and when they took off their jackets, fully three-quarters of them were wearing guns in shoulder holsters…’