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Luis Buñuel

7.01.2011

Luis Buñuel remained a man without a country, continuing to make films for himself alone and seemingly trying to offend even his most ardent patrons. Buñuel’s vision of man and society is, in many ways, even more nihilistic than Bergman’s; after directing the brutal Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned) in the slums of Mexico City in 1950, and rehabilitating his reputation as a director in the process, Buñuel went on to make a widely disparate group of deeply individual films as the decade progressed, such as Su-sana (The Devil and the Flesh, 1951), in which a young woman escapes from prison and then terrorizes a bourgeois Mexican household through a series of strategic seductions, nearly bringing about the collapse of the family until they finally expel her from their domain; and El (This Strange Passion, 1953), detailing the love life of a Mexican aristocrat who fetishizes women’s feet to the point of insanity.

Buñuel’s fascination with the moral hypocrisy of society continued in his typically bizarre Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, 1955). The film’s protagonist confesses in a series of flashbacks that all his life he has been obsessed with the thought of murdering those around him. As the plot progresses, Archibaldo watches as his intended victims meet accidental deaths just before he can kill them, falling out of windows or plunging down elevator shafts, literally just out of Archibaldo’s grasp, in a shocking, twisted comedy. During this same period, Buñuel also created Abis-mos de pasión (1954), a typically idiosyncratic version of Wuthering Heights, and even The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954), in English, starring the American actor Dan O’Herlihy as Crusoe. This version dwells on Crusoe’s hallucinations while marooned on his desert island. The film, shot in garish color in Mexico, and ostensibly aimed at children, ranks as easily the most unusual version of Daniel Defoe’s oft-told tale. In Nazarín (1958), Buñuel documents the life of a pious priest (Francisco Rabal) who ministers to his unwilling flock, attempting to inspire them to live a Christlike existence, while his parishioners do everything in their power to undermine his efforts.

In 1961, Buñuel was invited back to Spain to make Viridiana (1961) by the government of Generalissimo Francisco Franco as an apology for deporting him after the venomous documentary Land Without Bread in 1933. Buñuel cheerfully accepted and then created one of the most strongly anticlerical films of his career, in which the virtuous Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), a young woman about to take her vows as a nun, stops in to visit her only relative, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), who lives on an isolated estate in wealthy seclusion. Don Jaime, who at first seems polite and welcoming, is actually obsessed with bedding Viridiana, who coincidentally looks like Don Jaime’s long-lost wife who died thirty years earlier on their wedding night. Rebuffed by Viridiana, Don Jaime kills himself in a fit of self-loathing, and Viridiana inherits his estate. Still seeking to do good, Viridiana opens the doors of Don Jaime’s mansion to the poor, who promptly move in and destroy the house, engaging in drunken revelry until all hours of the night.

Sardonic social criticism culminates in one particularly memorable sequence, in which the camera pulls back during a drunken dinner banquet to reveal a composition that is a searing parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, with drunks and beggars replacing Christ and the apostles, while Handel’s Messiah plays in the background. To avoid government censorship, Buñuel edited it in Paris immediately after shooting and presented it at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm), one of the festival’s top honors, much to the consternation of the Spanish government, which immediately banned it. Buñuel shrugged off the controversy and returned to Mexico to direct several films in the early 1960s before moving to Europe, finally coming to rest in France, where he continued to direct until the late 1970s.

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