If there’s one thing the multi-textured, loop-de-loop tapestry that is my life has been missing, it would be a forum where I can adequately demonstrate my inadequacies in pondering film on a complexly intellectual level. What better remedy than a page devoted to my brain’s dribblings on a personal favorite and one of the medium’s most revered (not to mention most cerebral) directors?
I’ll try not to get any on you.
Buñuel – In Brief
Susana (Mexico, 1951, 82 min.) Starring Rosita Quintana, Fernando Soler, Matilde Palou, Víctor Manuel Mendoza, María Gentil Arcos, Luis López Somoza, Rafael Icardo, Enrique del Castillo. Sexy, if dramatically unremarkable, variation on the ‘household welcomes interloper only to be rent asunder by same’ story. Quintana plays the title character, a reformatory inmate. In the very first scene, she’s thrown into solitary. Surrounded in the dark by rats and spiders, and bathed in the light from outside, which shines through the bars making a cross on the floor (the role of Subtle will be played in tonight’s performance by Obvious), she cries out for God’s help, reasoning that she’s just as He made her, so why should she have to suffer for it. The Almighty Beard apparently thinks she has a point, as the bars proceed to come out with one pull, scrapping chances of the audience seeing any hair-pulling in the communal shower. Beating a hasty retreat, she arrives at the horse farm of Don Guadalupe (Soler), who takes her in. She immediately begins to play a dual role, sensuous naïf for the Don and his inquisitive young son Alberto (Somoza), haughty princess for Dona Carmen (Palou) and the high-strung head servant Felicia (Arcos). She fends off the advances of one of the Don’s senior workers, Jesus (Mendoza), but then sleeps with him to ensure his silence when he finds out who she really is. But she’s far more interested in seducing the Don and his son, presumably because it’s completely inappropriate for her to do so. This is all in service of an underlying (and familiar) cynicism positing that people are more like animals than we would care to admit, some easily herded like the livestock the Don’s workers guide around his land, and susceptible to those bearing the ability to poison and infect, like the rats, snakes, spiders, and scorpions with which Susana compares herself in her plea to Heaven. This man-as-animal motif also produces one of the somewhat middling script’s best lines: When Susana begs off work by sarcastically telling Felicia that strenuous labor affects her lungs, accompanied by mock coughing, the caustic older woman barks back, “You should wear a string of lemons around your neck; that’s the same cough that killed my dog!”
NEW! El Bruto (Mexico, 1953, 83 min.) Starring Pedro Armendáriz, Katy Jurado, Andrés Soler, Rosa Arenas, Roberto Meyer, Beatriz Ramos, Paco Martinez. Armendáriz plays the title bully, who is hired by Don Andres (Soler) to terrorize the tenants of a housing complex he owns so they’ll move out and he can sell the land. On the suggestion of his vivacious wife, the Lady MacBeth-like Paloma (Jurado), the Don sends Bruto after the lead of the resistance, Carmelo (Meyer), theorizing that with his resolve gone the rest will crumble as well. Unfortunately, Bruto’s ignorance of his own strength and Carmelo’s medical condition result in tragedy. Andres is then forced to send Bruto to lay low in an abandoned building on the outskirts of town, where he soon begins to play house with Meche (Arenas), Carmelo’s daughter, who doesn’t know that her new suitor is also the man who killed her father. Opinions on this one seem to vary pretty widely, but perhaps one of the most interesting things about it is that it represents a kind of laundry list of the filmmaker’s assorted talents. It’s very much the sort of melodrama characteristic of his Mexican period (with a story that’s the closest thing he ever made to a Hollywood style noir). His sly perversity peeks out at times in regards to Bruto’s barely contained violence and the lust it engenders in Paloma. His sense of social justice is in evidence through the struggle between the working poor and the wealthy landowner, although it feels a bit like a perfunctory factor of the story. On the other hand, that may not be completely fair. While I don’t know that Buñuel could have possibly topped himself for tales of proletariat misery after 1950’s Los Olvidados, an interesting dimension is added in as much as Bruto readily accepts Andres’ contempt for the plebes, seemingly unaware that he himself is one. This lack of self-awareness smacks of the same man-as-animal motif from Susana, and leads to what is perhaps the most telling Buñuel moment in the film. In the simple gaze of a rooster, the condemnation of one character’s unthinking self-interest is thrown back at them with power all the greater for its suddenness and brevity.
The Exterminating Angel (Mexico, 1962, 95 min.) Starring Sylvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Jacqueline Andere, Jose Baviera, Augusto Benedico, Claudio Brook. The director’s first full-scale piece of surrealism since 1930’s L’age d’or is also arguably his most disturbing film. Guests at a dinner party find that they are utterly, and inexplicably, unable to leave their hosts’ house, eventually finding themselves confined to a single room. This has been described as a satire of upper middle class decorum and rightfully so, but there’s more to it than that and this is where it starts to become unsettling. Along the way, Buñuel begins to equate what they are going through with a religious experience, particularly in the rhapsodic visions the characters describe after spending time in a small closet with a picture of an angel (the exterminator?) on the door. But if this bizarre circumstance has in some way brought them closer to God, then why are they suffering so? This all culminates in the last scene as the characters, having finally escaped their situation, attend a church service. It is a true celebration in the way a religious ceremony is, of course, supposed to be, until the clergy and congregation find that they cannot bring themselves to exit the church…and here we go again. As violence breaks out outside, the bells toll and the sheep start to run (obvious maybe, but still effective). This time it would seem that God truly has abandoned them, not to mention everyone else, and while they’re singing to him in his own house no less. Keeping all of this in mind, the film begins to seem less like a social parody and more like an all-out spiritual anxiety attack.
Tristana (Spain-France, 1970, 98 min.) Starring Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, Franco Nero, Jesus Fernandez, Lola Gaos, Vincent Solder. Rey more or less reprises his role from Viridiana (and any other number of roles he's played for the director, for that matter) as an aging society gentleman whose noble façade hides an undercurrent of seething perversity and who ends up lusting after and defiling the young woman in his charge (Deneuve). The difference here is that it’s consensual (if not altogether comfortable on her part), at least at first, whereas in Viridiana he slipped poor Sylvia Pinal a mickey and ravaged her while she slept. Deneuve begins to regret her actions after a while and takes up with boho artist Nero, which Unca ‘Nando don’t like at all. Eventually she gets sick, has to move back in with Rey and has one of her legs amputated. All of this, of course, is just a way for the director to hold forth on sexual attitudes, religious attitudes, financial attitudes, political attitudes, etc., but the interesting thing is that this feels sort of like Buñuel returning one last time to the type of melodrama that characterized his Mexican period. And, like many of those films, there isn’t as much humor as he often used in his late-period work. Instead this is marked by mainly somber moments, often reflecting loss, such as the scene where the town bellringer tells Deneuve how the bells used to chime on all occasions and how happy they made the townsfolk, though now the people look upon them as nothing more than an annoyance, merely noise pollution.
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