Tristana (1970)

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In the Hebrew Pentateuch, the Levitical law lays out a framework of precepts quite clearly that the people were meant to follow. One iteration can be paraphrased like so: If a man marries both a woman and her mother it is perversion. There must be no wickedness among you.

Doing a once over of the Spanish elite Don Lope (Fernando Rey), we see in him a man who came out of nobility and nevertheless lives a fairly humble life for the very fact that he’s never held a day job. He’s upper class by title and pretense only. Subsequently, his moral makeup is very much the same as he nobly provides a home for an orphaned ingenue (Catherine Deneuve).

Like his status, it is nearly all for show. It’s under the pretense of charity and the guise of a gentleman that he takes in the young Tristana, still in mourning following her dear mother’s death. Don Lope touts himself as a gallant defender of the weak and undoubtedly sees himself as a dying breed of man. Still, as his devoted housekeeper, Saturna remarks, when it comes to women he’s got horns and a tail. It’s hardly a secret.

We note the times in Spain during the 1920s or 30s. It is an irreligious generation as reflected in the deterioration and lack of importance placed in the church bell tower which used to be crucial to the daily rhythms of people’s lives. Now they’re too distracted by other pleasures.

Don Lope for one, does not concern himself with issues of money. Haggling is of great distaste to him. Instead in the quiet corridors of some great cathedral, he asks Tristana for a clandestine kiss. It’s the root of his perverse desires. Afterward, he makes troubling statements like, I’m your father and your husband and he seems to wholeheartedly believe them.

So despite the presence of Deneuve, in some respect, the narrative is more akin to Viridiana (1961) than Belle de Jour (1967) with Rey once more involved in a romantic tryst where he seems to be the main proponent of the relationship.

His spiritual beliefs come down to a few basic points including the assertion that Jesus was the first socialist and that the real priests are the men who look after the weak, fighting against hypocrisy and the powerful. He’s not altogether wrong but the words prove ironic coming from his lips. Because we know full well his own seemingly incongruent behaviors.

Still, it’s too true that we can equally criticize the advice of the local priest. However benevolent he might be, his words to Tristana stands in the face of what seems to be inherently right. He knows full well what Don Lope has done and yet he does next to nothing to protect the girl. All he can entreat her is to stay with him because he seems to have changed and treats her well enough.  That is all.

Fernando Rey’s character is obviously problematic to grapple with even if the performance itself is of merit. Because he’s this baffling mixture of old-fashioned values which give the pretense of respectability and honor. He’s not outrightly despicable, masking his indiscretions well. Perhaps because in his own mind’s eye these are hardly sins at all.

In realizing this we’ve come to what’s most problematic about him. Because he’s created his own code, in a sense, since there is no universal moral code that he falls back on. He is a strict adherent to moral relativism. You see, usually religious people, people who grew up in faith have something to check themselves with — Levitical law for instance.

Far from being legalistic, grace was in theory supposed to accord adherents the ability to forgive others but also be forgiven and live in complete freedom if they were penitent. But Don Lope can’t be troubled with religiosity, the commandments, and dos and don’ts of the church are all he sees. They seem so restrictive. Undoubtedly because most of the people living by them misinterpret their intentions and as a result carry on repressed even harshly ascetic existences. And yet in disregarding the same, Don Lope’s own “morals” cause him to step over accepted boundaries.

Thus, his relationship with Tristana from the day he betrays her innocence is forever tainted. And there is no grace there and no sense of repentance as if he actually did nothing wrong, and so he doesn’t really change. It only serves in making his victim more bitter by the hour.

Rey’s performance might be the most crucial but being partial to Catherine Deneuve there’s no question that her transformation from a young grieving woman of such pure naivete is striking. Because she’s so innocent only to become tarnished by Don Lope’s behavior. She’s a far cry from the woman she arrived in his home as — both physically and mentally. It’s taken its toll.

She is plagued by morbid dreams but Bunuel has gotten a great deal more subtle with his surrealist diversions skillfully weaving them into the framework of reality with seamless aptitude. There are individual moments that you don’t realize are actually dream-like until the bubble has burst and you’re out of them.

So the film utilizes a fairly straightforward narrative for Bunuel but that must be taken with a grain of salt. Because it’s contorted along the same lines of subversion and social norms that the Spanish director is usually fond of lambasting with his typical iconoclastic verve. It’s not always blatant in this picture but still evident.

Ultimately it becomes a story of revenge as Tristana finds love with another man (Franco Nero) and yet still feels trapped by Lope. As a result, her heart grows hard and full of resentment toward the old man who ruined her. To return the favor, she is all but ready to ruin him. It’s a lovely sentiment.

In reading some over the career of Luis Bunuel I’ve realized the correlation between him and Alfred Hitchcock in a couple areas. First, they were very much visual filmmakers who knew what they were shooting before they ever got on set. The movie was already inside their heads and made. They simply needed to use the actors and equipment at their disposal to get it done.

Furthermore, thematically since they both had a Catholic background and a slightly sardonic wit, you often see touches of those sensibilities throughout their pictures. Hitchcock in the likes of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), also considered themes of sexual obsession and deep-seated vices which Bunuel held a similar preoccupation with. I’ve always held a preference for “The Master of Suspense” but I must still pay my deference to the latter as a tirelessly inventive filmmaker who proved to have remarkable longevity.

4/5 Stars

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

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Luis Bunuel made a name for himself ever since his early work on Un Chien Andalou (1929) as king of the surrealist filmmakers. That and bashing the bourgeoisie. Some might be surprised in finding that Diary of a Chambermaid, adapted from the eponymous 1900 novel of Octave Mirbeau, is a fairly straightforward narrative for him.

From what I gather, that’s not to say its fully faithful to its source but more so it does not send the narrative hurtling into surrealistic visions like many of his other prominent works. What’s not missing is his typical acerbic wit that belittles the lifestyle of the upper class partially through the eyes of a Chambermaid named Celestine (Jeanne Moreau).

Before it’s begun we already know it’s charted out a diverging course from that which Jean Renoir’s Hollywood effort tread. That goes without question because not simply the directors but the systems that they were working under prove drastically different. Thus, there’s little reason to label this a remake. It’s an entirely different beast.

Furthermore, their leading ladies, the vivacious Paulette Goddard, and the aloof Jeanne Moreau could not be more different muses. The latter dame of France projects even a mild indifference to the hoops she’s put through.

Moreau actually received the part over Silvia Pinal who was intent on being in the picture (even learning French for the role). Bunuel was no doubt happy to have Pinal aboard as well but ultimately the French backing won out.

While he did not get his initially chosen leading lady, Bunuel nevertheless was blessed with one of his other most prolific collaborators the young French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere who would go on to work with the director on many of his most prestigious later works.

Celestine, as portrayed here, is not an altogether awful human being — she does show some amount of heart even — but that does not mean she fails to realize the degree of power she has over people.

Yes, she’s only a chambermaid. There’s an elder gentleman who resides in the manor. His adult daughter who oversees much of their affairs. And we have the upstairs-downstairs drama at hand most certainly with gossip being traded. Especially about the Madame’s husband (Michel Piccoli) whose raging libido means he is just about to pronounce his love for anything that moves.

However, in this particular picture, the Monsieur Monteil also has an ongoing feud with the retired army officer next door who is constantly ridiculing him and tossing refuse onto his property. In fact, there are numerous other exemplary moments of wry humor like when a pronounced animal lover annihilates a butterfly at point-blank range his first time using a shotgun. Or the fact that the same man who turns out to be Lord of the manor finds Celestine far too long a name and christens her Marie; that’s what all his past maids went by.

But as Bunuel pictures are accustomed to doing, this one slowly begins to roll out the carpet of perversity masked under refined sophistication. The master has Celestine read to him in the evenings and quite nonchalantly asks to touch her calf. He says she has nothing to fear and otherwise he might be the most charming individual in the home. He’s simply exercising a few whims, after all, he’s advanced in years. He should be given leeway… That’s how the rationalization goes anyway. However, the moment is as cringe-worthy as it is despicable especially in an age where such acts of sexual harassment are finally being brought to the fore and into the light.

Except in a Bunuel picture these proclivities were never really hidden. He tantalizes and nearly taunts you with them. Because this elderly “gentleman” is not the only one. The perpetually vexed husband keeps inquiring if Celestine has settled in because he wants to have a love affair with her. He promises that he’s not a brute though his past history seems to suggest otherwise.

Then, there’s brusque chauffeur Joseph who initially picked her up at the station. He relishes the opportunity of making the goose for dinner suffer because they taste better that way. And he also brandishes callous statements about killing jews after scanning the newspaper headlines. His anti-semitic sentiments are never in question.

The crass behavior doesn’t end there either. The father dies and on the very same day, a darling little girl that Celestine had taken care of is prematurely pulled from the picture as well. Both have dubious shrouds lingering over them. Amid it all, Celestine nearly leaves her post but comes back and the marriage proposals keep on coming from every man. She finally ends up with probably the nicest of the lot. It turns out hurling insults and garbage is almost docile.

Even the priest while not necessarily a wayward figure provides no type of spiritual guidance. He has no wisdom to impart. Instead entreating his parishioners to give to his church. There is no one righteous, not even one.

One of the few moments Bunuel does stray from normal classical filmmaking comes in the final frames. The first time you see it the immediate assumption is your eyes must be playing a trick on you.

But then we see a mass of protesters jump once, then again, and one final time so that they have all disappeared from the screen with each subsequent cut. One final lightning bolt for good measure and the books close on Bunuel’s rueful indictment of the bourgeoisie. It was very much his favorite pastime.

And yet any neat explanation of the film — even if it is more conventional as a narrative — is soon eviscerated by any number of complications. The contradiction in character, political undertones, and even a finale that indubitably has ties to Bunuel’s early career all spring to mind. His picture L`Age d’Or (1930) was decried with a similar protest. There’s no doubt that with each subsequent picture, the director pushed the cinematic boundaries with schemes of visionary ingenuity. Love him or hate him, there is no denying the skill in his craft.

4/5 Stars

Los Olvidados (1950)

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The opening narration of Los Olvidados asserts that the great modern cities of the world including New York, Paris, and London all mask issues of poverty and delinquency amid their magnificent structures. This is a universal problem that plagues Mexico as well.

In Los Olvidados a test case is being proposed and the solution left open-ended because change is still necessary. There’s still need for some kind of resolution. Whether it’s completely true word for word is nearly beyond the point because it feels authentic. There’s little need to make up a world as dire and ugly as this one unless there’s at least a grain of reality in every frame.

Where boys break out of reform school, stone blind beggars in retaliation, and form gangs as a kind of social safety net to lash out at their environment. Beating up the poor and the helpless. They too are poor but this band of theirs allows them to be less helpless and prey on others instead. That’s their main tactic of survival in their life of impoverished vagrancy.

It proves to be a harrowing exhibition in social realism and though defamed in its day, its candid and at times brutal depiction of juvenile delinquency has gained it a spot as one of Mexico’s most prestigious pictures. There’s no doubt that it’s a violent picture seething with adolescent rage. The only question is how much is environmental and how much is a product of the individuals?

As much as this film is disquieting and repulses me to the core of my being, I cannot deny its place as an important commentary and cinematic landmark from Luis Bunuel. The Spaniard is a master who always makes my skin crawl and challenges my very convictions. Los Olvidados succeeds in doing the very same thing again by forcing us to acknowledge the loathsomeness in the world that we so often want to brush under the rug. It’s there. There’s no denying it. Man left to his own devices will send the world hurtling towards malicious chaos.

There’s an intent to every moment with action streamlined but never feeling rushed or forced in its everyday rhythms that provide a seamless illusion of real life. Luis Bunuel still finds space to imprint Los Olvidados with his own surrealist vision as a young boy, Pedro, is haunted by a grinning corpse to mirror the dead body now laying in a ditch where he served as an accomplice. However, his disquieting nightmares are compounded by a mother complex. He wants her love and yet seems to do everything to receive her ire.

In a world such as this where we see the brokenness and the sheer depths of poverty, it seems like it would be easy to empathize and yet this film makes it rather difficult. Because some of these boys are so boorish. So violent and dirty-minded. There’s no sense of decency even if they wanted it and their leader Jaibo is the worst of the lot.

But there are two boys that I do have some lingering sympathy for. Pedro is not unlike the others. Out on the street getting into trouble and the like. And yet there’s something in him that is trying to reform. He looks to find work and he wants the love and affection of his mother once more. The problem is she’s already given up on him. There is no love in her heart. And his pals are constantly impeding his road to reform. That’s as much as an indictment as the city that has no effective system to give these boys a better life or the boys themselves who live wayward existences.

The second sympathetic figure simply goes by “Eyes” and he’s been waiting patiently for his father to return. He hasn’t. Instead, he becomes the guide to the ornery street musician who makes a living in the town square when he’s not accosted by young gangsters. “Eyes” gets pulled into the drama too but there’s an innate integrity that’s lacking in most of his contemporaries. He generally treats the old man well and respects the pretty young ingenue Meche. That cannot save any of them from an awful existence.

The final image is grotesque. Not for the graphic nature of the imagery but the metaphoric juxtaposition. A body thrown into a trash ditch like a bag of flour. There’s no value to it and the people who do it while not the perpetrators are further implicated in this societal problem. They trade pleasantries with the mother as she searches for her son — a son she never seemed to love — until he’s in trouble. The issues run so deep it hurts to watch. The finger can be pointed in any direction.

The problems must fall on the parents, adults, and peers who do not find it within themselves to speak up or to continue loving or fighting for change. Complacency and hard hearts are just as bad a problem as juvenile delinquency. Put them together and you sow nothing but generations upon generations of human beings damned before they even have a chance at a decent life. It’s over 60 years on and we’re probably still searching for many of the answers to these very same issues. As much as I would like to admit that this film is outdated, to make such a statement would be heedlessly ignorant.

Because of course Los Olvidados in English is literally translated to “The Forgotten.” There’s part of your problem right there. As humans we so easily forget. We brush problems under the rug, pass the buck, and so on. Before you know it years have gone by and a new generation of youths are all but forgotten. The deadly cycle begins again and never ends until someone champions radical change. Until that day they will continue as the unnamed, unwanted, forgotten foes of society. Los Olividados.

4.5/5 Stars

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

exterminating1In a sense, I’m scared to be confronted with Bunuel’s films more often than not, because even to this day they are surprisingly subversive. But with The Exterminating Angel, there is a different sort of apprehension to be faced altogether. It is a fascinating film because it shows the descent of humanistic man into the depths of his primordial nature. However, it builds off the cruelest and most interesting practical joke ever conceived. It’s played on a group of people within the confines of the frame and the audience watching in equal measures.

Of all places, it starts at a dinner party where good etiquette, manners, the upper class, and culture all collide. Luis Bunuel seems to have a preoccupation in placing his subjects around a table because really there is nothing more human than sharing a meal together. Although, he finds ways to make it interesting and in this case wickedly absurd. The table becomes an arena for gossip, loaded barbs, harbored feelings, and ruffled feathers.

It’s quick to enter an almost surreal state as all the guests are unable to leave the confines of the room. We take things for granted so easily, but in their world leaving the room is not a given, even if it seems so straightforward to us. Some force is keeping them where they are, although we never see it or hear any mention of it. Our only inference is that there is some outside force holding them there. They are literally haunted by specters with a shroud hanging over them — an Angel of Death if you will.

exterminating2This prolonged period of isolation lends itself to the degradation of all pretenses. The animalistic tendencies replace all shreds of decency. All the dirty little secrets that lurk under the surface then begin to rear their ugly heads. Honestly, it’s hard to keep them at bay in such close proximity, for prolonged periods of time, because people see the real you. It becomes hard to hold your tongue, to keep those biting words from slipping out, especially when fatigue and hunger sets in. As many of the men and women begin to falter, the good doctor represents all things rational and seemingly honorable. But when he is cast aside it reflects an end of human dignity. These individuals who were once so high, have fallen such great heights. Lambs get taken to slaughter and pipes are busted just for even the smallest taste of water.

It strikes me that this film is literally a picture of hell. No, it’s not the fire and brimstone picture we are accustomed to, but instead, it is a hell created by the individuals themselves, feeding off their own evil and pride, and accentuated by their prolonged purposelessness. Just think, it takes a woman named Leticia (Silvia Pinal), to break all her companions out of this cycle they have become stuck in. She realizes the utterly pointless loop they are caught in and breaks them out of it with a few powerful pieces of induction. Also, could there be some symbolism in her nickname “Valkyrie” (The chooser of the living and the slain)? I think so.

exterminating3They leave the room just as easily as they entered it. It happens so unremarkably in fact that some might feel duped, and I would not blame them. Why did we watch this group of socialites remain in a room for an hour and a half if they could have gotten out this easily? But if you ask this question you miss out on the whole mind-bending aspect of Bunuel’s main conceit. We cannot fully understand; we can only marvel at the fact that something that we take for granted like leaving a room, doesn’t work so simply. Do I understand it, certainly not, but it makes for an amazingly powerful and frightening study of human nature. This is also a film that does not let off. In fact, although we finish one cycle, it looks like another one is about to begin with a few clergy trapped for another inexplicable reason in their cathedral with many parishioners. Outside a riot forms as another herd of lambs makes its way to the chapel. It’s as depressing as it is funny in some unnerving sort of way. Not only has Bunuel played a joke on his characters, but his audience as well. This time I didn’t mind all that much.

4.5/5 Stars

Viridiana (1961)

220px-Viridiana_coverLuis Bunuel like another cinematic auteur, Ingmar Bergman, seems to often fill his films with religious imagery and themes, but whereas Bergman appears to have genuine questions about his own spirituality, Bunuel is all but content to subvert all such depictions for his own purposes. He has a wicked sense of humor with the opening crescendos of Handel’s “Messiah” playing over the credits only to come back later when his film is at its most tumultuous.

The story opens, of all places, in a convent with a pretty young novice (Silvia Pinal) preparing to take her vows. But she is ordered by her superior to visit her long-estranged uncle. She is reluctant but goes anyways to his mansion in the country as a courtesy.

There she meets the lonely old man (Fernando Rey), isolated in his great home with only a few servants surrounding him. In young, vibrant Viridiana he finds joy and dare we say, love because in her face he sees the likeness of his now long deceased wife. She embodies the objects of all his passions and desires that he forgot so long ago when he was widowed. However, Viridiana is aloof and will show no affection towards him, ready to stay only as long as she has to. But he wants her to stay, needs her to be by his side forever, obsessing about her, and using all means necessary to keep her in his midst. It’s disconcerting how far he takes things, even lying to his niece that he took advantage of her in her slumber. Now if she leaves the house, she can never be the same woman she entered as, even if what Don Jaime is false. In the end, she does pack her bags in a tizzy and her hopeless uncle takes his life.

Now the life of a nun seems impossible, her life all of a sudden becoming tainted by these events. So she resigns to do the next best thing by taking her Uncle’s home and opening up its doors to the less fortunate — the beggars and the sickly. It’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t turn out especially well. She also becomes connected once more with her Uncle’s illegitimate son (Francisco Rabal), who has a more cynical view of the world. He sees her piety with an air of contempt.

In the chaotic interludes that follow, the house is torn to shreds by all the benefactors of Virdiana’s charity. While she is away, they make for themselves a rich feast, “A Last Supper,” pulling out all the stops like table clothes, fine china, and wine. What ensues is utter debauchery that Bunuel plays for laughs all the while Handel reverberates over the din.When Viridiana returns and sees the degeneracy around her she slowly dissolves into a shell of who she used to be. She’s been broken and much to her cousin’s delight, she’s lost her ardor, now jaded by all that is around her.

It’s a depressing conclusion suggesting that charity is all in vain because there is a degree depravity that courses through all people. In some sense, I find a Bunuel film more uncomfortable and disconcerting than most any, because he displays the most surreal, idiosyncratic, and even perverse things as comical. He lacks reverence and reveals the darker side of humanity all with a smile on his face. His style of filmmaking is abrasive because it rubs up against social mores and has fun with the baseness of mankind. If we note that before going forward, it still seems possible to learn from him and be a tad mystified by his work.

4/5 Stars