The Essentials: Luis Bunuel

Anti-establishment to the core and arguably one of the original enfante terrible filmmakers, Luis Bunuel had three preoccupations, no, obsessions that he charted for his entire career: religion, class and sexual desire. Labeled a surrealist early on his career due to "Un Chien Andalou," his famous collaboration with Salvador Dali (responsible for one of cinema's most famous images, of a razor blade slicing an eyeball, and made when the filmmaker was just 29) it would be extremely pat to reduce Bunuel's long and eclectic career to that idiosyncratic work. A blasphemous heretic to the church, several of Bunuel's films were flagrant censures of religion and the Catholic church, which saw him fleeing Spain more than once during his career. 

But, as we said, religion was hardly his only preoccupation. A diabolical provocateur, Bunuel was an incorrigible scourge of hypocrites, authority and the bourgeoise, even while he continued to operate within the system (he was under contract to Hollywood studios through much of the 1940s, though no work came of it, and won an Academy Award late in his career), his films often proving to be delicious and delirious screeds, even if they were often more soulful than his critics believe.

We’re always looking for a good excuse to indulge in our cinephile tendencies and with Bunuel’s “Tristana” coming out on Blu-Ray this month, via the Cohen Media Group, we felt this was as good as excuse as any to discuss one of our favorite filmmakers. Bunuel's career is pretty expansive, lasting as it did for almost seventy years, but we've picked out ten of his films from across the decades that we believe are the true essentials of his career. Take a look below.

Los Olvidados

Los Olvidados”(1950)
Much more in tune with Italian neorealism than the surrealism he became known for, Bunuel’s “Los Olvidados” was the filmmaker's first feature-length film and second international breakthrough made twenty years after the director’s original success and notoriety with “Un Chien Adalou” and “L'Age d'Or." Translated literally as “The Forgotten Ones” and released as "The Young and the Damned" in the U.S., the picture is uncharacteristically conventional and an uncompromising, grim and tragic examination of the marginalized and destitute children of Mexico’s slums (and not thematically different from 1932's faux documentary “Land Without Bread,” a look at Spain’s own paucity though without as much contemptible bite). A powerful social-realist story of juvenile delinquents without many redeeming qualities outside of their love for each other, “Los Olvidados” wastes no time depicting the dire and inevitably heartbreaking circumstances that will decide their fate. Centering on two street punks caught in the cycle of poverty and violence in the disease-ridden barrios of Mexico, one has a semblance of decency while the other, recently escaped from juvenile detention, seems incorrigibly malicious, a victim of circumstance. During a fight, the elder unpleasant boy accidentally kills another boy and threatens his younger accomplice to never utter a word. Charting the consequences it has on both teenagers and their friendship, the picture features nary a trace of the director’s fanciful flourishes, though the movie does contain a dream sequence where one of the guilt-ridden boys is haunted by the murder. After an ignominious 20 years where Bunuel had to leave Spain for the U.S. and take odd jobs to pay the rent (working at MOMA in New York, acting as a Spanish Dubbing Producer, getting removed from the production staff of Warner Bros.' “Beast With Five Fingers” in 1946), before coming to Mexico, “Los Olvidados” was a major comeback for the director (at the ripe old age of 50 no less) and he would direct a startling 26 more pictures until his death in 1983 at the age of 83. While ‘Olvidados’ was reviled in Mexico initially -- the Mexicans saw this foreigner’s film as an insult to their country, so much so that an alternate “happy” ending was shot -- Bunuel won the Best Director prize at Cannes that year and the film was immediately reappraised within the country as the director shot back to international celebrity status.


Viridiana” (1961)
Almost 30 years after “Land Without Bread,” Bunuel returned from his Spanish exile with “Viridiana” and it almost made him persona non grata within his homeland all over again. Scandalizing the Church and denounced by the Vatican, the picture was censored by the Spanish government on the grounds of blasphemy and obscenity due to its risqué sexual nature and a “Last Supper” homage depicting ungrateful beggars dining in the same pose as Da Vinci’s famous painting. Commencing with Bunuel’s characteristic perverted sexual predilections, the picture begins with a young nun Viridiana (Silvia Pinal, in their first collaboration), who days before taking her final vows in the convent, goes to visit her wealthy and aging uncle who has provided for her all these years (Fernando Rey, the villain in “The French Connection,” in the first of four key collaborations with Bunuel). Struck by the resemblance to his former wife, the old man soon becomes fixated and then completely obsessed with his niece; begging her to marry him and going as far as to convince her he has raped her, so she will assume the convent will never have her, as she has been tarnished for life. Before the narrative can become Bunuel’s distinctive riff on lecherous old men bewitched with beauty, the uncle dies and the picture seemingly switches gears. Viridana is so deeply disturbed she forgoes her duties to the church and devotes her life to feeding and educating a needy group of vagabonds and paupers in the house that has been left to her and her cousin. But it becomes clear the theme of spoiled idealism remains the same when the beggars show their true colors as vile degenerates and thieves. Another more conventional narrative compared to some of his other works (the filmmaker would vacillate between the two types of filmmaking for the early part of his career), “Viridana,” isn’t as wicked and naughty as some of Bunuel’s more slyly arch films, but the picture is still strikingly audacious. Considered by some to be his masterpiece, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival – the only film of his career to win the prestigious award.

The Exterminating Angel
"The Exterminating Angel" (1962)
Perhaps a close as Bunuel ever came to making a (very satirical) horror film, "The Exterminating Angel" would see the filmmaker veer toward some of his surrealist tendencies concurrent with his gleeful fondness for sending up and putting the bourgeois through their paces. A posh jacket and tie dinner party filled with the upper crust is taking place in an aristocratic mansion when suddenly the servants and help feel the urge to abandon their posts and exit immediately. The dinner guests have little time to be outraged by their discovery when they too soon feel an overwhelming sensation: they cannot leave the party. Inexplicably trapped in some kind of mental psychosis, there are neither locks nor barred windows preventing them from leaving, but all the dinner guests remain bizarrely incarcerated. When they do muster the strength and courage to unify and leave, one by one they fall into a type of hopeless despair. Worse, left on their own, a “Lord Of The Flies”-like scenario begins to emerge with the guests turning on one another with blame, threats of violence, paranoia and duplicity. It’s all very wickedly arch and archetypal, and Bunuel can practically be heard howling with laughter at their plight. Merrily malevolent, as the guests of “The Exterminating Angel” devolve into a courteous savagery the film gets even weirder involving sheep, witchcraft, a bear and a creepy disembodied hand. Black humor is an essential tool in the Bunuel arsenal, but it’s perhaps never as quite as deliciously devilish as it is in this witty and scathing censure of the affluent and privileged.