The “Commercial” Life of Luis Bunuel

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

One tends to think of Luis Buñuel’s “early” career in terms of long desert spaces between highly personal landmarks: almost two decades of relative anonymity between the collaboration with DalíUn Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’ôr (1930)—and the explosive resurfacing occasioned by Los olvidados (1950), and then a decade of ostensibly “commercial” filmmaking between Los olvidados and Viridiana (1961), which in turn initiated a period of big and small masterpieces extending to the present. As a new biography by Francisco Aranda makes evident, Buñuel was much more involved in film in the Thirties and Forties than has generally been recognized; and, as retrospective tributes and newly available 16mm prints show, Buñuel’s “commercial” work is much more interesting than disparaging remarks about the director’s “Mexican period” would lead us to believe. One might go even further: some of Buñuel’s lesser-known Fifties films are so good that they may alter our sense not only of Buñuel but of film in the Fifties as well.

Of the movies the director made between Los olvidados and Viridiana, perhaps only Nazarín (1958) has any great currency. But at least half a dozen titles from the period, many of them out of circulation until recently, are of special importance. Subida al cielo (1951) and Él (1953), two films which have been generally available, rank as small masterpieces—the one a devastatingly surreal B picture*, the other a superbly succinct psychological study which has something of the seductiveness and sting of Belle de Jour (1967). Susana (1951), Abismos de pasión (1954), and Robinson Crusoe (1953) are literary adaptations of considerable interest. A number of “commercial” films from just before and after Los olvidadosGran Casino (1947), El gran calavera (1949), La hija del engaño (1950), Ilusion viaia en tranvia (1953), and El rio y la Muerte (1954) rate as appealing minor works. But three others—Ensayo de un crimen (1955), La Mort en ce jardin (1956), and The Young One (1960)—deserve to be known by more than Buñuel aficionados alone. All three reflect a radical filmmaker’s approach to a conservative, conformist age, and all three are among Buñuel’s wisest and most engaging films.

* * *

Georges Marchal and Simone Signoret: 'Death in the Garden'

La Mort en ce jardin (Death In the Garden) is an “ambitious” film whose best moments prove more interesting than its plot—perhaps deliberately so. One senses Buñuel is wary of letting the film’s journey (through a dictatorship and a jungle) become too much of an easily interpretable allegory. Buñuel’s cinema is consistently and rigorously opposed to easy, readymade answers, and La Mort reflects this through a group of characters who constantly keep us off balance, and through a series of small digressions from a deceptively linear plot. The film is a sort of pilgrims’ progress, but one which is more intent on moral distinctions than on clearcut moral lessons. Anti-Catholicism and anti-imperialism both loom large, and Buñuel links them quite directly with each other. But the film’s major insights have more to do with the nature, extent and price of individual freedom. All of the characters, including an unusual missionary priest, Father Lizzardi (played by Michel Piccoli), are individualists and entrepreneurs of one sort or another. The story’s movement reveals their discovery and/or neglect of the connections each has with his fellows.

Four characters have special importance in the film’s South American setting. Castin (Charles Vanel), an aging diamond-miner, dreams of returning with his daughter (Michèle Girardon) to France and opening a restaurant. He also wants to marry Djin (Simone Signoret), a prostitute who is interested in his money but not in him. Lizzardi preaches acquiescence when the workers plan an armed rebellion against the government’s nationalization of the diamond mines. Chark (Georges Marachal), a lone wolf adventurer, disdains the government and the rebellion; but when he is arrested for freelance diamond smuggling and thereby mixed up in the general police-state brouhaha, he escapes and temporarily fights alongside the rebel leaders with a vengeance. When all of these people are thrust together in flight, he becomes their guiding light—in a way which encompasses both the conventions of the adventure film and the idiom of Buñuel’s cinema. Chark, in fact, is unique in that respect: no other Buñuel film I know of has a figure who is so commanding without being corrupt at the same time. Buñuel is not a director whom we think of as a creator of heroes, but Chark’s independence, ferocity, and lack of sentiment bring him closer to the conventional hero than is usually permitted in Buñuel’s more personal movies.

Djin, outwardly the most appealing character, is actually a striking example of bad faith. Her earthy adaptability and her disdain for bourgeois values suggest that she might be an unconventional Buñuel heroine. But ultimately she is condemned not for prostitution of body or soul, but for prostitution of trust. She seems to assume that all relationships are bargains to be made, broken, and remade. When she must throw in with Chark and the others, she tries to make amends with Chark by returning the money she got for turning him over to the law earlier; his response is immediate and uncompromising: he thrashes her on the spot. Her death is both surreal and ironic: Castin shoots her as she stands in an evening gown speaking of love amid jungle growth and the wreckage of an airliner.

Castin provides an unusual example of a familiar Buñuel theme, the illusion of innocence. He too is falsely implicated in the rebellion (without having taken part in the fighting in which Chark, for reasons of his own, figured conspicuously), but his protestations of innocence·are trebly ironic: (1) he is .utterly oblivious to the injustices around him; (2) he has no sense of complicity in events, even when a group of hostages are to be shot in his place; and (3) his sense of goodness is so abstract, and hence fragile, that he reverts to the opposite extreme when events bear down on his illusions and dreams. Castin’s innocence actually turns out to be a form of the opportunistic individualism which the film criticizes in Djin and some of the lesser characters. But the context of his complicity is not that of any easy humanism. On the contrary, it derives from just the sort of insoluble moral dilemma that Buñuel insists we face: Lizzardi urges him to sacrifice his own life to save those of the hostages, but Castin can only refuse to pay for a “crime” he did not commit. The film doesn’t “solve” this problem, but a later parallel offers striking contrast: Fleeing through the jungle and desperate for food, the characters are “saved” by the discovery of the wrecked airliner. Some see it as a gift of God, but Chark insists on regarding their bounty as the gift of the passengers who lost their lives. Chark rejects the morality of both Castin and Lizzardi, but he acknowledges his complicity in human events with characteristic directness.

Father Lizzardi, too, is an ironic kind of innocent. His complicity is dramatized in at least two ways. When he hides in Djin’s bedroom, only to be discovered there after all and mocked by the populace, he is an “innocent” victim of appearances (he was there to plead with the more successfully concealed Castin), but as Djin says, implying much more than mere anti-clericalism, “Now you know how it feels to be misjudged.” Moreover, he wears an honorary wristwatch which a corporation awards to all the missionaries of his order. Lizzardi casually waves aside Chark’s charge that these missionaries serve as an advance guard for capitalist expansion and imperialism. But the Church’s complicity in dictatorship is brought home with brutal force when two guards drag their prisoner (Chark) into an ongoing Mass and slam him to the floor before turning their attention to prayer. Lizzardi, conducting the Mass, and Castin are both visible at the front of this Sanctuary for the Fallen.

Filmed in Eastmancolor, these elaborate goings-on occasionally take on the look of the standard socially aware film spectacle. But Buñuel’s directorial touch is frequently evident and the film is full of peculiarities that jar us out of standard responses. The director’s lucid calm in the face of vicious ironies is evident in the abovementioned church scene as well as in smaller bits of unspoken commentary: Father Lizzardi’s costume (sombrero and shiny black boots which suggest his sublimated colonialism), or the moment when a pimp and a priest flee gunfire together. At least twice, La Mort anticipates the French New Wave: with a mystifying digression for a story told by Lizzardi (after which he immediately falls asleep), and with a startling cutaway to Paris nighttime traffic which then freezes and resolves into a postcard one of the fugitives is examining by a jungle campfire. The film is intensified by startling images: Chark escapes jail by throwing ink in a guard’s face and stabbing him in the eye with a pen—a disturbingly “heroic” moment which may also be a visual pun on the old axiom about the pen and the sword (especially since Lizzardi has recently platitudinized about living and dying by the latter). In an earlier sequence, when Chark is merely in the process of getting ready for bed, Buñuel digresses for two unexpectedly domestic shots: a view of a cat creeping into the bedroom (Chark’s boot suddenly comes hurtling toward it), and a close shot of a candle whose flame Chark extinguishes with his fingers. Both glimpses lend an air of mystery to two “trivial” moments. In the jungle, Castin’s deaf and mute daughter gets her hair eerily caught in the leaves of an odd bit of vegetation, and for a moment she is transfixed like the heroine of some surrealist’s deceptively realistic painting. In another scene that seems trivial, then grows in startling ways, Chark hacks a huge snake to death, begins to skin it for food, and momentarily turns to assist in starting a fire on which its meat will be cooked. When we next see it, a mere moment later, the snake’s corpse is inundated with insects which devour it with such vigor that it seems to writhe with life.

La Mort en ce jardin opens with a lyrical view of nature, from which the camera tilts downward to reveal diamond-miners slaving under the hot sun. The film’s action is divided between city and jungle, but the one proves just as deadly as the other. This and the film’s title evoke an ironic Eden, one in which Castin, invoking the wrath of God, kills one man of God (Lizzardi), and then is killed by Chark, who has killed the serpent as well. Only Chark and the deaf-mute Maria escape both the city jungle and the garden jungle. In the end they drift off together in a dinghy that is taking them away from dictatorship and death. They carry with them an elusive and perhaps profound sense of the price we pay for our illusions of goodness and innocence.

* * *

Along with Él and Nazarín, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ensayo de un crimen) is probably the best of the films Buñuel made between Los olvidados and Viridiana. Only Él matches it for visual wholeness and intensity. The main themes grow out of surrealist psychology disguised as oddball (but not exactly screwball) comedy, and they are consistently expressed through the mise-en-scène—something that cannot be said for most of the other films of this period, including La Mort en ce jardin and Robinson Crusoe. Archibaldo also ranks with Discreet Charm as the most integrated and impressive of his ostensibly lighthearted films—at the same time that its treatment of sexual obsession and fantasy gives it much in common with Belle de Jour.

In Archibaldo the central character is, as the Spanish title indicates, attempting a life of crime. In his childhood a stray bullet killed his governess just at the moment that he was wishing for it. The incident is one in which death, erotic pleasure, and the absolute fulfillment of desire seem intertwined, and the adult Archibaldo, mostly a placid and unprepossessing man, sets about the business of rediscovering the pleasure of that bizarre moment. Much of the film’s comedy revolves around the repeated frustration of his lethal intentions, and yet the drift of the characterization is toward liberation. Archibaldo has elements of the surrealist hero, particularly in his responsiveness to objects and chance occurrences, and in his devotion to his obsessions and deepest desires. Like Sévérine in Belle de Jour, his attempts to live out his darker sexual fantasies rather surprisingly lead to an intriguing mixture of personal freedom and conventional happiness. Sévérine’s story is complicated by a number of other factors, but Archibaldo’s is in a sense simplified by the frustrations he undergoes. No fewer than four intended female victims die in the film, but in each case neither moral nor legal blame can be attached to Archibaldo himself. War, accident, suicide, and the gun of a jealous lover are the accepted causes of the deaths for which Archibaldo would like to be blamed; for the civil and church authorities prefer material evidence to Archibaldo’s confessions of intention and desire. And besides, he doesn’t look like a murderer. He’s enough of a surrealist to feel a strong relationship between material objects and the inner world of desire. The film is full of objets surrealists, fetish objects which seem to answer desire materially: a collection of razors, a high-heeled shoe, a dress shop, flaming candles, various articles of women’s clothing and—most important of all—a music box which is linked with the death of the governess. Nevertheless, Archibaldo’s fetishes are part of what the process of frustration and liberation leaves behind.

The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz

Taken merely as a comedy of frustration, the film seems rather trivial, albeit kinky and amusing. But the fact that Archibaldo’s frustration leads not to despair but to release gives the film a dimension that puts it among Buñuel’s major efforts. Archibaldo’s deadpan attempts to become a sex-killer represent a kind of therapy: by giving expression to his obsessions, he frees himself from them. One of the deaths seems especially relevant in this respect: the woman who dies by suicide disfigures herself so that she won’t be remembered as “beautiful in death.” But Archibaldo is liberated from more than his almost childlike sadomasochism. Like Francisco in Él, he is also a prisoner of the Christian view of human nature. He tells his fiancée, the ostensibly pure Carlotta, that he feels a dual impulse to be a saint and to be a criminal. He thinks only her purity can “save” him, but when he discovers her infidelity he determines to murder her at their wedding. Carlotta is murdered at the wedding—but not by Archibaldo; while chance has responded to his wishes for a fourth time, life has not permitted him to live out the saint/sinner dichotomy of Christian dogma. Ultimately, he is saved not by Christ but by one of the hallmarks of surrealism: chance. Paradoxically, since Archibaldo also casts off his fetishes, he might be seen as liberated from surrealist dogma as well.

Nevertheless, the film is full of juxtapositions which reflect both Buñuel’s unique sense of humor and his surrealist leanings. The café where Archibaldo meets Lavinia is identified as a building which has also been a convent, a bakery, and a meeting hall; and the café decor is dominated (for Archibaldo) by candle flames which re-ignite his erotic response to the burning of Joan of Arc. Archibaldo’s exit from the scene of one of his unfulfilled murders is followed by an image of his foot pedaling his potter’s wheel—an image which links art and sex in a surprisingly haunting way. Early on, an erotic shot of the dead governess is suddenly followed by a closeup of the nun who, we discover, is listening to the grown Archibaldo’s account of his “evil” past.. Later, a shaving cut and the newly rediscovered music box evoke the governess’ death with renewed force. Still later, the sight of the music box which had almost been purchased by Lavinia reminds him of her, and Archibaldo goes to find her. Instead, he finds a manikin which closely resembles Lavinia. With the knowing smile of a connoisseur, he buys the manikin and takes it home. Ultimately, when Lavinia eludes—without becoming aware of it—his plot to murder her, Archibaldo “kills” the manikin in her place—by burning it in the kiln. In the course of this scene, Lavinia changes clothes with the manikin, Archibaldo kisses both Lavinias, and Buñuel substitutes a shot of the real actress for her inanimate likeness as Archibaldo slides the manikin (dragged by the hair, minus a leg) into the fire. The manikin twists with “life” as it burns, but Archibaldo’s flaming ecstasy is interrupted by the arrival of Carlotta, who has decided to accept his proposal of marriage. All of these juxtapositions reflect an ironic “black” sense of humor, but each in its way is also a surrealist tribute to the liberating power of dream and desire.

* * *

The Young One (U.S.A., 1960) and La Fièvre monte à El Pao (France, 1958) both seem to be limited to occasional television screenings. While Fièvre seems rather remote and fragmented on TV (in spite of a good cast: Gérard Philipe, María Félix, Jean Servais), The Young One crackles with a dark humor and perverse complexity that seem utterly mystifying in a low-budget American film shot on location—or would, if we didn’t know something about Luis Buñuel. Based on a novel by Peter Mathiessen, The Young One gives signs of falling into several conventional categories: the anti-lynch message picture, the swampy spectacle of Southern sex and violence, the chronicle of a fall from innocence. The movie is all of those things to some extent, and one never quite loses the feeling that the whole project was conceived by someone other than Buñuel. But the film’s mise-en-scène has Buñuel’s personal stamp all over it, and the result is a powerful film with some decidedly offbeat effects. In fact, under Buñuel’s eye, the sex becomes surprisingly lyrical, the violence becomes exceptionally ironic, the fall from innocence becomes a victory, and the message picture conveys something too complex to sum up as a “message.”

The story takes place on an island (the film also goes by the title Island of Shame)—for a symbolic isolation of man and nature shared with The River and Death, Robinson Crusoe, and Death in the Garden. Bernie Hamilton plays Travers, a black musician fleeing a trumped-up rape charge. At the outset, he comes ashore on an island game preserve ruled by Miller (Zachary Scott). Before the fugitive encounters Miller he meets Evvie (Kay Meersman), daughter of another islander who has just died. A clergyman (Claudio Brook) and a tough redneck named Jackson (Crahan Denton) enter the story in due time. Their presence brings the story’s moral issues to a head: the redneck wants Travers strung up, and he has Miller on his side until the clergyman (whose sublimated racism is hinted at) intercedes to make Miller see a moral parallel between Travers’ plight and his own status as the seducer of an under-age girl. Travers is not lynched, and as the principals depart for the mainland, the film’s moral issues have reached a climax but not a resolution. Travers, for example, is attacked near the end by the redneck Jackson who clearly means to kill him; but when Travers gets the upper hand he coolly refuses to take the lethal revenge that action movie morality (and Jackson’s) would seem to call for. And the future relationship of Miller and Evvie is left up in the air.

Bernie Hamilton and Kay Meersman in 'The Young One'

The conventional liberalism that one might expect from this kind of story is undercut in numerous ways. Travers’ refusal to kill echoes a theme of the futility of violence established earlier. He botches an escape attempt when he accidentally shoots a hole in the bottom of his boots. But guns and the men’s World War II memories have something to do with equalizing the relationship between Travers and Miller; and Evvie adds a distinctly ironic note with her repeated insistence that “a chrome-plated pistol” is a much more desirable possession than the new dress and shoes provided by Miller and the “golden key” to salvation promised by the clergyman. Travers and Miller both resort to music (the blues and a folk song, respectively) after moments of distress; this not only “equalizes” the two, it complicates their characterizations. Travers, very much the victim, seems slightly arrogant, while Miller reveals a tenderness that counters his apparent meanness. Jackson, meanwhile, lives pretty much true to type, except that he also has an earthy strength that makes him as much of a survival artist as any of the others: “I seen my death a half a dozen times, and I was never afraid.”

The Young One, taken as an American movie about males in conflict, is exceptional for the ways in which it deflects violence while also evoking the violent ambiguities of human behavior. But it is even more exceptional in that Evvie, who is the title character of the film but not the novel, assumes central importance. She serves a message-picture purpose vis-à-vis racism (“He eats the same as us”), but also questions Christian abstractions with a directness that links her with Friday in Buñuel’s Crusoe, and with the ironic skepticism of so many other Buñuel films. Her sexual naïveté becomes a false issue because she accepts sex naturally and without shame. She has a pet deer in the yard; both Travers and Miller eat apples in her company; she collects honey after she’s stomped a tarantula to death. She’s a natural force rather than an innocent, and in mostly silent ways she becomes the greatest single source of the film’s richness. While the men squabble over abstract issues, she exists wholly in the stream of life. But she leaves the island with the clergyman, and what that bodes for her pagan ways is not at all clear.

Part of Evvie’s specialness is a function of Buñuel’s personal—but not so private—film language. Several of the more erotic moments in the film involve those “Buñuelian” fetishes, feet and shoes. When Travers finds her taking a shower, Buñuel “removes” the stall between them with a close high-angle shot that shows the nearness of their legs and feet (hers being visible through the opening at the bottom of the stall). The shot evokes the erotic nature of the moment at the same time that it utterly rejects the sexual and racial stereotypes of the pop culture and prejudice alike. Late in the film, Buñuel “digresses” to give us a close view of Evvie clumping along a wooden deck in the high heels given her by Miller. Here too, eros in crude, natural form transcends questions of maturity and immaturity, right and wrong. But before either of these moments comes the scene, early on, in which Evvie reacts to the death of her father. The death itself is treated matter-of-factly by both Buñuel and Evvie, who makes the discovery while untying the dead man’s shoe. After an interruption, in which the death announcement mingles with Miller’s rising lust, she returns to the cabin containing the body and locks herself in. She messes up her hair (which she had “fixed” for Miller), reties the dead man’s shoe and peeks at his face. Then, quite calmly, she gets a piece of bread and begins to eat it. It’s a temps mort for a male action movie, but it’s one of the finest moments in all of Buñuel.

* * *

Jean-André Fieschi has written of Buñuel’s minor Mexican films as “sketches” for later works of greater merit. There is a certain truth to that view, but largely in the sense that Buñuel manages to find ways of leaving his stamp on a wide variety of material, including some that is routine and conventional. Abismos de pasion (1954), an apparently unrevised adaptation of Wuthering Heights from the 1930s, is more retread than sketch, but insect imagery, bizarre juxtapositions (a pig-sticking following a “tender” love scene), and a convulsive, surreal climax in Katy’s tomb give the proceedings a distinctly Buñuelian tone. I have seen only an unsubtitled version (some sympathetic commentators rate it as the most faithful film version of Brontë’s novel), but it leaves the impression of a failed serious project. Susana (1951), which I have also seen only without subtitles, looks more interesting and more complex, though it seems more in need of subtitles as well. But if dialogue seems more important in Susana than in Abismos, Susana‘s imagery tends to be more original and more intense. An extraordinarily forceful opening sequence in a jail suggests a Buñuelian exercise in film noir, but Susana plays with some of the erotic and social themes of Abismos in a way that appears to be more perverse as well as more perceptive and ironic.

Three “early” films from Buñuel’s Mexican period show the director’s capacity for “subversive” imagery, though the most surprising aspect of these three may have to do with Buñuel’s professionalism. Gran Casino (1947), The Great Madcap (1949) and Daughter of Deceit (1951) all show Buñuel’s ability to make very likeable commercial films—an ability that one might not have expected in a director whose reputation and “image” depended so much, at one time, on virulent, upsetting films like Un Chien andalou and Los olvidados. The Great Madcap and Daughter of Deceit are both comedies which feature Fernando Soler in satirical forms of “madness”: one character is too free with his money, the other mistakenly disowns his own baby daughter. Most of what either film has to “say” is built into its basic plot premise, but the two satirize attitudes toward money and monogamy, respectively, in a way that suit the Buñuel canon without adding anything substantial to it. Daughter of Deceit has good performances by Soler and Fernando Soto—especially the latter, who manages a fine mix of macho clowning, physical arrogance, and emotional vulnerability. But The Great Madcap is the more preferable of the two because it packs a number of intriguing themes into its conventional framework: transsexual humor, the sexuality of advertising, the working classes’ comical exploitation of the ruling class, the link between Christian evangelism and hard-sell advertising. The Great Madcap also has a fine comic love scene involving a station wagon and a humorous sort of neorealism.

Gran Casino seems the least likely of all Buñuel’s commercial projects, but it may have more in the way of personal touches than several of its counterparts. Though it’s a musical of which he has spoken rather contemptuously, Buñuel leaves his mark on the genre. Three merely obligatory musical appearances by the “Trio Calveras” have magical entrances. For example, when the hero begins to sing in jail, the trio turns up in an adjacent cell; their surreal omnipresence suits both the conventions of the genre and the irrational humor of the director. Previous commentators have noted that Buñuel “subverts” a love scene by having the male lead stir a pot of tar with a stick. But the “subversive” element is less isolated than has been implied. A sadistic undercurrent prevails in several scenes between the male and female leads. She scratches his face at one point, and at the end, as they depart happily (and together), the scratch marks suddenly become very noticeable again. When the hero kills a villain (Alfonso Bedoya) with a statuette, Buñuel evokes the man’s death with a surreal flash-cut of wall plaster crumbling. In another scene, the hero grows weary with a casino woman’s chatter and amuses himself by contemplating her distorted reflection in the silvery container he’s holding. But, while the director has distinctly colored the film with his presence, Gran Casino is also notable for its professional polish. Graceful, functional camera movements suggest that Buñuel did his homework well during his non-directorial tenure at Warner Brothers (1944–1946).

Illusion Travels by Streetcar

Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1953) and The River and Death (1954) have both been billed, along with Mexican Bus Ride (Subida al cielo), as films about “Mexican folklore.” All three deal with the “common man” and with Mexican popular culture, though neither of the former two matches the “secret” richness of the latter. Illusion is perhaps the most puzzling of Buñuels Mexican projects: in synopsis it sounds like a potential masterpiece, but on film it is an enjoyable film comedy in which the director’s best opportunities for personal expression go strangely neglected. The story involves two mechanics who roam the city in a commandeered streetcar which has been tabbed for the junkpile. The extended (more than 24 hours), unauthorized journey is a gesture of affection for something on which they have worked hard and well; a gesture of protest against a bureaucracy which “retires” the car just as it is restored to usefulness; and a gesture of easygoing solidarity with the various cityfolk to whom these men give rides. Digressions involving a neighborhood festival, a Buick-driving suitor, an incident over black-market corn, and the misadventures of a retired conductor add to the possibilities for urban picaresque.

Buñuel seems content to let these materials merely go their entertaining way. The film is full of a gentle sort of Marxist class-consciousness, and part of its humor has to do with the failure of the ruling classes to comprehend this peculiar (and seemingly unthinkable) breach of the system’s routine. And Illusion has its special moments of poetry bordering on the surreal: an exquisitely crude folk play about Adam and Eve; a remarkable night journey with fresh meat hanging in the trolley, two con-women fussing over their plaster saint, and Lilia Prado holding two hearts and some brains wrapped in newspaper. Like Los olvidados, Illusion disguises itself as a neorealist film, but its bursts of surreal imagery take it beyond verisimilitude and social-consciousness to a darker, less codifiable poetry. But whereas some of the entertainments of Buñuel’s Mexican period seem to gain by his presence, this one—paradoxically—suffers from his absence.

The River and Death is, above all, an anti-macho message picture, in which science, culture and education are held up as the remedies to the hatred and machismo dramatized in a self-perpetuating blood feud between two village families. The film’s simplified morality and optimism seem antithetical to the best Buñuel films, though they hardly represent a repudiation of the director’s own complex moral sense. But the “message” looms over the entire film in a way that makes the personal touches seem more academic than in some of the other projects where Buñuel had to settle for minor gestures of infiltration or subversion. Part of the problem is that the film must dispose of materials which other Buñuel films have made darkly illuminating. The basic situation abounds in perversities: in a village “controlled by the dead,” generations of males from two families have been killing each other off in the name of honor. The enlightened hero, a young doctor from one of the families, is confined in an iron lung when he himself is challenged to defend the family honor. Oblivious to his (temporary) condition, both the hero’s enemies and his own mother heap contempt on him for his pacifist attitudes. “Carry an image of the Virgin—and a gun” speaks for the self-righteousness of the violent tradition. And the circularity of the tradition’s logic is symbolized in the ritual crossing of a river to land which is both a burial ground and the setting in which the men who kill for honor do their penance. There are also a card-playing priest who carries a pistol, a reluctantly armed artist who does Magritte-like paintings for burial sites, and a superb night scene in which the camera pulls back to reveal three small crowds standing in the street around three separate freshly killed men. (Here and in Death in the Garden Buñuel .stages ingloriously abrupt gunfights in which the combatants exchange fatal shots in neat, brutally symmetrical patterns.) But the dominant image of The River and Death is the ultra-wholesome doctor hero sitting in his wheelchair on an ultra-modern all-concrete plaza, telling his nurse girlfriend about the past, and calling for a future based on science and education. “Until that day,” he says, “my village will continue its dark destiny.”

Some of the films mentioned in this article were made available through the unparalleled generosity of Mr. Willard Morrison of Macmillan Audio Brandon Films, Oakland. To Mr. Morrison and Audio Brandon, MOVIETONE NEWS and Peter Hogue express their very great appreciation.

t Mr. Hogue’s account of Subida al cielo (Mexican Busride) appears in MTN 39, an issue devoted to Luis Buñuel, which also includes Hogue on Viridiana.

© 1976 Peter Hogue

A pdf of the original issue can be found here


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