Atheist… Catholic… Marxist… Freudian… Anarchist… Surrealist… Luis Buñuel wore many faces during his long reign as Spain’s most famous film-maker, and his Hogarthian observations on the follies and hypocrisy of man continue to provoke and amuse even in today’s anything-goes times.
Whether scandalising the world with his surrealist collaborations with Dali, infusing Mexican melodramas with a touch of anarchy, or confounding art-house audiences with his blackly comic European masterpieces, Buñuel was always compassionate and honest in his wry assessment of human nature.
Bunuel landed in Mexico in 1946, having started his filmmaking career in Spain and the United States. But it was in Mexico that he honed his craft. In spite of the repressive regime of day, Buñuel hit the big-time in 1950 with Los Olvidados: a social realist classic, whose blend of fantasy and realism would set the tone for his later work. Buñuel followed this with a series of ‘churros’ for the domestic market before moving into more artistic territory (my favourite being The Exterminating Angel). But Buñuel’s Mexican films still display many of the touches that define his genius. Two examples are Susana (1950) and The Brute (1952) – out on DVD for the first time in the UK on 14 March.
In Susana (aka The Devil and the Flesh), Rosita Quintana plays an unstable woman who escapes from a reformatory and is taken in by the wealthy Don Guadalupe (Fernando Soler) and his family. But she soon wreaks havoc in the household, seducing both the son and father, and threatening to usurp the wife’s place. Following the success of Los Olvidados, audiences and critics of the day thought his potboiler was by a completely different Buñuel. Watching it now, however, you can see themes and elements that also appear in the auteur’s later work (both Viridiana and Belle de Jour also deal with destructive women).
Made two years later, El Bruto (aka The Brute) stars one of Mexico’s biggest stars, Pedro Armendáriz, as Pedro, the brutish enforcer for a corrupt landlord. Caught between the landlord’s shrewish wife (Katy Jurado) and the naïve daughter of a tenant he’s killed, the simple-minded Pedro tries to put his wrongs to right, with tragic results. This powerful melodrama, which reprises many themes from Los Olvidados, excels because of the performances of the main leads – especially Nigh Noon’s Jurado as the landlord’s wife from Hell. It’s also a window on the past with the use of real Mexico City locations.
This pairing is a must for anyone interested in Mexican cinema, the 1950s or Buñuel’s oeuvre. Susana and The Bute might not reach the surreal, satirical heights of the director’s later works, but they certainly bear watching as portents of things to come.
Released 14 March
Here’s a sample clip from Susana…