A Surrealist Anti-Nationalist for All Ages – And All Countries.

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Luis Buñuel died in 1983 at 83 of cirrhosis of the liver in a hospital in Mexico City. The Spanish-born filmmaker was famous, in part, for being fearless in his critiques of organized religion and the bourgeoisie. His cinematic career started in 1929 with Un Chien Andalou (aka: An Andalusian Dog), a short film he made with Salvador Dali. Fans of The Pixies probably can’t hear that title without also hearing lead singer Black Francis (now Frank Black) barking out the words to the song “Debaser”: “Got me a movie, I want you to know, slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know, Girl so groovy, I want you to know, Don’t know about you, But I am Un chien andalusia.” This a nod to the famous scene where a cloud cuts across the moon and then a razor seems to cut a woman’s eyeball (it was actually that of a dead calf with bleached fur). Un Chien Andalou ran for eight months in Paris. Things like that happened almost a hundred years ago before Netflix and binge watching.

Buñuel’s second satire L’Age d’Or (aka: The Golden Age - and at this point I need to point out that Cracker has one album called The Golden Age and another one – a double CD set! – called Garage d’Or ) started out as another collaboration with Dali, but they went their separate ways before filming began. Dali, who had no problems causing scandals using surreal images, would go on to denounce L’Age d’Or as as attack on Catholicism, and also went on to support Franco. Buñuel, an unapologetic lefty who purposefully wanted to upend bourgeois institutions opened L’Age d’Or in 1930. It caused riots, was denounced by the right-wing, banned and all prints were confiscated. From there it would only get more complicated for Buñuel despite what might seem from the outside a quiet spell until his international resurgence decades later. This post jumps three decades past Un Chien Andalou and everything in-between to look at Viridiana, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival.

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The title character of Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a young postulant at a Spanish convent who is about about to take her final vows. Viridiana has a rich uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) who she has only met once before despite his having paid for her education. The mother superior convinces Viridiana to visit Don Jaime at his farm for an extended stay as it might be her last chance to see him before he dies and she takes up a life of solitude in the convent. Things get sticky when the widowed Don gets obsessed with Viridiana’s uncanny resemblance to his dead wife Elvira, calling to mind how Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo (1958) becomes haunted by Kim Novak’s Madeleine. While both Hitchcock and Buñuel flirt with the idea of rape and necrophilia, Buñuel fuses elements of neo-realism with sacrilegious tropes that veer far from Hitchcock’s orderly and immaculate studio universe. They almost do the opposite by bringing to mind a muscular and misanthropic embrace of people on the fringe such as to make Freaks (1932) director Tod Browning proud.

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At this point: an apology to readers who might be wondering why some film titles are in bold and others italicized. (ie: Vertigo vs Freaks. Why? It’s as if marketing trumps reality.) This is because months ago the edict came down from above that only film titles on FilmStruck get bolded and that we plug where they are streaming, in this case Viridiana is streaming under the Cinema Passport: Spain theme in FilmStruck until March 24, 2017 (after which point it will move over to The Criterion Channel). All other titles get italicized. Our overlords are showing their devotion to marketing rather than pure devotion to motion pictures with this call, imho. Anyway, onward and… normally I’d say upward but, no, it’s simply onward:

An excerpt from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s book Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia:

It’s seldom recognized that Viridiana (1961) is the first feature Buñuel ever directed in his native Spain – and only the second film he directed there after his half-hour documentary Las Hurdes almost three decades earlier. Given all his years of exile in the U.S. and Mexico, this reestablishing of his roots is an important aspect of what enabled him to reinvent himself afterwards as an international arthouse icon. “For us,” said Pedro Portabella, one of the film’s two Spanish executive producers, in a 1999 interview, “Buñuel was the only solid reference point in our cinema.” And insofar as he was the most Spanish of Spanish filmmakers, this particular context is worth stressing.

Viridiana is a Gothic tale with many twists along the way. Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, author of Buñuel and Mexico: The Crises of National Cinema, notes how in the director’s version of Wuthering Heights (1953), which also had Gothic elements, Buñuel was self-conscious about telling Gothic tales with Mexican actors, adding:

Likewise, Viridiana, a movie made in Spain with Mexican capital (producer Gustavo Alatriste), and employing a Mexican female lead (Silvia Pinal) with a Spanish supporting cast (Fernando Rey and Francisco Rabal), dramatizes the complexity of Buñuel in the 1960s: independent, subtle, “speaking” a more universal film language. Buñuel’s latter works with Dáncigers (specifically, Abismos de pasión), Alatriste, and Manuel Barbachano Ponce (Nazarin) are the key bridging films of this period, the last movies in which Buñuel addressed his position as an exile, as a stranger in Mexican cinema.

Acevedo-Muñoz adds an important note in the conclusion of his book, which is this:

Buñuel critics have been reluctant to recognize his Mexican period as anything other than a fluke, an accident, as if he had magically remained untouched by his time in Mexico. But Buñuel’s greater contribution to Mexican cinema is perhaps to have initiated an articulate, critical strand, a new tradition in Mexican cinema.

With issues revolving around nationalities and borders once again being so prominent in the headlines, perhaps it could comfort readers to know how melting pots not only make for delicious fondue, but also make for stronger characters and more interesting stories. Masterpieces in cinema (such as Viridiana) based on convictions by real artists of principle, continue to attest and provide witness to this wonderful idea.

Pablo Kjolseth

10 Responses A Surrealist Anti-Nationalist for All Ages – And All Countries.
Posted By EricJ : February 19, 2017 11:44 am

Am I the only one who first opened the page and thought that Last Supper still was from Altman’s “M*A*S*H”?

Posted By Doug : February 19, 2017 1:40 pm

EricJ-Nope. Have you ever read the book and it’s good sequel, “M*A*S*H Goes To Maine”?
Fine stuff-the scene in the movie is pure Altman, but in the original book there’s a kind of sacrilegious subplot which even Hollywood wasn’t ready for in the early 1970′s.

Posted By George : February 19, 2017 3:59 pm

Bunuel was taking a bigger risk than Altman, by making irreverent movies in countries where The Church basically controlled everything. VIRIDIANA was denounced by the Vatican and banned in Spain until 1977 (two years after Franco’s death).

Re the Last Supper scene in MASH: Altman, as a lapsed Catholic, may have been coming from a similar place as Bunuel.

Posted By AL : February 19, 2017 9:25 pm

My introduction to Bunuel was LOS OLVIDADOS. It still blows-me-away.

Posted By KenK : February 19, 2017 10:42 pm

True story: I had never heard of Bunuel before when a friend took me to see That Obscure Object of Desire (and I didn’t know anything about the film). For the first third of the film, something bothered me about the main female character, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. Finally, I started memorizing facial features carefully, and when I figured out the “secret”, I started laughing. Then, throughout the rest of the movie, from time to time, I would hear other nervous giggles/laughter, similar (I thought) to mine when I had my epiphany.

I had never thought that someone would do such a thing in a film, so my mind couldn’t accept that it was the case!

From then on, I saw almost all of his films. My favorite remains The Exterminating Angel, although I have many favorites.

Posted By LD : February 20, 2017 5:36 am

When TCM showed VIRIDIANA I recorded it but erased it without seeing it. Perhaps I should have kept it. I have seen Bunuel’s DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (1964) BELLE DE JOUR, and THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. CHAMBERMAID (with Moreau) is my favorite of the three and I liked DISCREET CHARM but disliked BELLE DE JOUR.

Posted By George : February 20, 2017 3:57 pm

To each his own, LD. BELLE DE JOUR is my favorite, but I’ve liked every Bunuel film I’ve seen.

Bunuel was one of the few directors that Alfred Hitchcock regarded as an equal, and throughout his career he would screen every new Bunuel film as soon as he could get a print.

Posted By swac44 : February 21, 2017 4:29 pm

Thanks for the peek behind the Streamline curtain! Thankfully, we can still bold whatever we want in the comments, like Porky’s II: The Next Day.

Unless FilmStruck ever devotes a corner of its selection to Bob Clark, that is. There’s always hope!

Posted By kjolseth : March 2, 2017 4:39 pm

I’m late to the party (as usual). Your Porky’s II: The Next Day insert made me laugh. I have to give the editor kudos for leaving the word “marketing” in bold. That shows he has a sense of humor. I’ll grant him even higher praise for not deleting my petulant snark outright.

Posted By swac44 : March 2, 2017 5:03 pm

As someone who worked at a daily newspaper knows, an editor with a sense of humour is a valued prize to be greatly treasured.

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