Luis Bunuel’s life, like his films, resists an easy unraveling, and everywhere biographer John Baxter turns he finds tensions and contradictions. Before tracing Bunuel’s life and career in chronological fashion, Baxter plunks the reader down in the middle of things in his first chapter, using Bunuel’s return to Spain in 1961 after more than thirty years of self-imposed exile as an emblem of the riddles and ironies of his life. In eight pages Bunuel comes alive as a man of orderly habits plumbing the depths of disorder in his films, a lifelong expatriate yearning for home, and an inveterate rebel unhappy with the oppressive and sometimes murderous institutions of Fascism, his natural enemy; Communism, his natural ally; and Catholicism, his lifelong burden. Baxter sets the pattern for the rest of the book by briefly describing VIRIDIANA (1961) as, characteristically, an award-winning triumph and, at least according to some, a blasphemous insult to the church and country that nurtured him.

Throughout his life Bunuel was fascinated by sexual desire and images of death, and from the very beginning his work was inspired and structured by dreams, and filled with violence, fetishes, and fantasies. But while Baxter is alert to all these dimensions, he concentrates not on psychobiography but on the personal, social, and political contexts of Bunuel’s life, especially his friendships with Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca, his uneasy relationship with the Surrealist movement, and the lasting influence of the Spanish Civil War.

While not primarily a work of criticism, Baxter’s study nicely highlights key characteristics of Bunuel’s films from UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929) to THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977): his stunning, and often shocking visual imagery; continual experimentation with cinematic form; and independent, anti-authoritarian spirit and lifelong compassion for not only the poor and physically victimized, but all those subjected to practical limits on imagination and desire—a shorthand definition for Bunuel of the human condition.