Luis Buñuel John Russell Taylor

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John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Never since L'Age d'Or has Buñuel's expression of his beliefs been so intense and concentrated, not even in Viridiana, the most complete later expression, since then there is a fully articulated plot to be dealt with and the film is more than twice as long. But one L'Age d'Or is enough; no man, not even Buñuel, would need to make two in one lifetime. It offers such riches all at one go that it leaves dozens of fragments of raw material just begging to be taken up again and reworked, as well as numerous ideas to be applied to an infinite number of new situations. The later films, after some twenty years' gap, set out to do precisely this; to build on the firm foundations offered by L'Age d'Or.

Buñuel's next film, Las Hurdes (1932) also known as Land Without Bread, is a perfect illustration. At first sight it would seem the direct opposite of L'Age d'Or, a straight-forward social documentary about a depressed area in the mountains of Spain marking, one might suppose, a complete break with surrealist fantasy. And yet it is not like that at all…. Las Hurdes simply offers the reverse of the medal: Buñuel's objective camera-eye applied to the extraordinary gives it the air (all the more disturbing of course) of complete normality; applied to straight actuality, on the other hand, it somehow heightens our awareness to the point where what he sees takes on the colouring of wild surrealist fantasy. The tension in each case between, as it were, the tone of voice and what the voice is saying is exactly the same, and the ultimate effect is astonishingly consistent; not for nothing does Buñuel class Las Hurdes, without explanation, or, apparently, a second thought, among 'my surrealist films'. (pp. 89-90)

[Los Olvidados] was the first unmistakably 'Buñuel' film since Las Hurdes, fully characteristic of his mature vision and showing a quite extraordinary consistency of style and inspiration with the works of his early surrealist heyday.

At one stage, indeed, this was to have been even more evident, since Buñuel intended to include in the film moments of surrealist commentary on the principal story of juvenile delinquents in the slums of Mexico City: the camera, travelling reflectively over a wasteland, would pick out a symphony orchestra playing away in the skeleton of an unfinished building, and then return without lingering to the principal characters, and so on. But ultimately this idea was abandoned, and instead we are given what appears to be a straightforward realistic film, its fantasy carefully limited to a symbolic dream sequence. Appearances, however, are deceptive, as they were with Las Hurdes: what Buñuel is really about is the exploration of his private world, under the guise of realism. In Los Olvidados, in fact, he has hit at once on precisely the sort of ambivalence which has enabled him subsequently to make his own films quite happily within the commercial system. At one level the film works quite acceptably on the level of an humane social document … and that is the level on which it has appealed to a vast public. On another level, though, one can see it as not realistic at all, any more than Las Hurdes was realistic; and if this time the effect stops short of an empassioned call to murder, nevertheless the nightmarish, hallucinatory quality of the film is uniquely disturbing.

This result is achieved—though perhaps Buñuel would resent intensely one's saying it—by Buñuel's power to invest the most unexpected things with poetry. Not, of course, poetry in the sense that the appearance of Gabriel Figueroa, Mexico's foremost expert in lush atmospherics, as the film's cameraman might lead one to expect; the photography is throughout bare and stripped of extraneous effects, even in the dream sequence. Rather is it the sort of imagist poetry which comes from an intense heightening of individual sense impressions, so that certain selected objects take on the quality of a fetish, an instrument of ritual significance in the reenactment of...

(The entire section is 1,943 words.)