Another Look at Bunuel: The Tragic Eye

Submitted by Reddebrek on June 4, 2016

His hatred of Catholic morality must not he taken as implying that
he is without a moral sense. On the contrary he is obsessed by one. It
is precisely his detestation of suffering, cruelty i injustice, and hypocrisy that
made him judge life so\ severely. His criticisms of Spain are the most
severe ever made by a Spaniard.

These words were spoken, not of Bunuel but of the novelist Pio
Baroja, and they remind us that without making Bunuel a Spanish hero
of our time, it is possible to find, in his background, his teachers and
his contemporaries, the clue to much that is puzzling in his work, and
its intense and savage power. Towards the end of the last century, the
Spanish government, dominated then as now, by the Church, dismissed
the leading university professors. A few of them started a 'free' school
for higher studies, the Institution Libre de Ensencmza, and around this
arose the so-called "Generation of '98", the small group of intellectuals
who sought, as a parallel to the growth of working-class movements,
to diagnose the stifling inertia, hypocrisy and corruption of Spanish life —
the art critic and teacher Manuel Cossio, the philosophers Unamuno
and Ortega y Gasset, the economist Joacqum Costa (who summed up his
programme for Spain in the words school and larder, the poet Antonio
Machado, Pio Baroja. The Institution had an even more remarkable
offspring, the Residencia de Estudianles, or Residential College for
Students, founded by Alberto Jimenez in 1910. Gerald Brenan gives us
this fascinating glimpse of the Residencia :

Here, over a long course of years, Unamuno, Cossio and Ortega taught,
walking about the garden or sitting in the shade of the trees in the manner
of the ancient philosophers: here Juan Ramon Jimenez wrote and recited
his poems, and here too a later generation of poets, among them Garcia
Lorca and Alberti, learned their trade, coming under the influence of the
school of music and folksong which Eduardo Martinez Torner organised.
Never, I think, since the early Middle Ages has an educational establishment
produced such astonishing results on the life of a nation, for it was largely
by means of the Institucion and the Residencia that Spanish culture was
raised suddenly to a level it had not known for three hundred years.

It was to this remarkable environment that Luis Bunuel came in
1917, born in a wealthy land-owning family which he despised, and
educated in a Jesuit college which he loathed, with that intense hatred
for the Catholic Church which is peculiar to a deeply "religious" people
like the Spaniards (see M. L. Berneri's article in Anarchy 5). At the

Residencia, Bunuel met his contemporaries Salvador Dali and Federico
Garcia Lorca, as well as the older writers Rafael Alberti and Ramon
Gomez de la Serna : Dali, who was to write with Bunuel the scenaria
of his first two films before declining into triviality; Garcia Lorca, who
was to become the greatest poet of his generation, and to write, before
being murdered in Fascist Spain in 1937, the play which Bunuel was
to turn into the film The House of Bernarda Alba; Alberti who is today
a poet in exile denied an audience in Spain; and Gomez de la Serna, ten
years older than Bunuel, who had already begun to 1910 to write his
aphoristic greguerias, or attempts to define the indefinable (a surrealism
which antedated that of Breton and Dali).

Bunuel has remained singularly faithful to this generation and its
teachers. Compare, for instance, with his work, the conclusion of
MaragalPs La Espaciosa y Triste Espaha :

This, then, is the land of Spain. I have raised my eyes and seen the
scraggy trees and the houses, the bushes, agaves and cactuses in the brown-
red and wretched soil, all covered with the dust raised by wandering beggars
as they pass along the roads ... and I have felt within me, as my only
reaction to all this, a deep and helpless disgust. . . .

Or Pio Baroja's declaration that

Every subversive instinct— and the natural is always subversive — carries
with it its own policeman. There is no pure fountain which men have not
trampled with their feet and dirtied.

Or finally, listen to the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (who was
to die under house arrest after being dismissed for the second time from
the rectorship of Salamanca University), confessing his destructive faith,
in The Tragic Sense of Life :

But it is my task— I was going to say my mission — to shatter the faith
of the one, of the other, and of the third, the faith in affirmation, the faith
in negation and the faith in abstention, and to do this out of faith in faith
itself. It is my task to fight against all those who resign themselves, be it
against Catholicism or Rationalism or Agnosticism. It is my task to make
all live in unquiet and longing.

Here, for comparison, is Bunuel, answering in 1959 a questionnaire about
the kind of film he would like to make:

If it were possible for me, I would make films which, apart from
entertaining the audience, would convey to them the absolute certainty that
they do not live in the best of all possible worlds. And in doing this I
believe that my intentions would be highly constructive. Movies today,
including the so-called neo-realist, are dedicated to a task contrary to this.
How is it possible to hope for an improvement in the audience — and conse-
quently in the producers — when every day we are told in these films, even
in the most insipid comedies, that our social institutions, our concepts of
Country, Religion, Love, etc., etc., are, while perhaps imperfect, unique
and necessary? The true 'opium of the audience' is conformity; and the
entire, gigantic film world is dedicated to the propagation of this com-
fortable feeling, wrapped though it is at times in the insidious disguise of

* * *
It is a sobering experience to look at Bunuel's first two films thirty
years after they were made. We reflect of course, that Un Chien
Andalou and L' Age D'Or were conceived by two young men of bour-
geois origins who came from a country which had escaped the first
world war, but whose revulsion from their environment was so intense
that they could describe their first film as "a despairing passionate call
to the slaughter". Today, after the slaughter, we are not so impressed
by gratuitous acts of violence. In the second film however, the revolt-
ing images develop a more coherent allegory and we notice as Georges
Sadoul puts it, that "through the Surrealist extravagance and anarchic
scandale comes the thin end of the wedge of social criticism", or as
we would prefer to put it, the nihilism becomes tinged with anarchism.
For, while Dali moved on to disintegrate his talents, Buiiuel fortified
his, and on the fall of the Spanish monarchy, returned to Spain to make,
in the Year One of the Republic, Land Without Bread. Garcia Lorca
discovered the gypsies of Andalusia, but Buiiuel discovered the deformed
and monstrous inhabitants of the desolate region of Las Hurdes. "This
then," he might say with Maragall, "is the land of Spain ..." and to
the charge that he got a sadistic pleasure from the display of its degrada-
tion, he would reply, as did the novelist Valle-Inclan, that the tragic
reality of Spanish life could be conveyed only by a systematic deforma-
tion, "because Spain itself is a grotesque deformation of European
civilisation". This, says Buiiuel, is your liberal republic with its sacred
principle of universal suffrage, and we see starving animals, cretinous
beggars, cave dwellers and dead children : images with a good deal less
surrealist chic than the artfully-arranged dead donkeys on Parisian grand
pianos, of his first film.

There follows a great gap in what Buiiuel himself would regard
as his creative life, since he disclaims all his subsequent work until The
Forgotten Ones of 1950. Transplanted to Mexico (the country whose
art, in its preoccupation with suffering and death, most resembles that
of Spain), he made his offering on that topic so equivocally precious to
the cinema, juvenile delinquency. Why is the adult world so fascinated
by this theme? Do we project on to the pointless viciousness of naughty
children, the guilt we feel for the massive and purposeful delinquencies
of our social and political life? Are we looking for microcosmic scape-
goats for our defence programme? Bufiuel does not indulge us by
making us vicarious therapists; his anti-social innocents are not restored
to the bosom of society, for society itself displays on a grand scale the
pitiful petty cruelty and crime of the forgotten ones. Virtue is not
rewarded: Pedro and Meche, the adorable children of this film, are as
doomed as the vicious Jaibo and the spiteful old blind man, and Buiiuel
scorns to offer us any attenuating circumstances or comforting conclu-

Two years later he made Robinson Crusoe. You can imagine the
standard cinema treatment which Defoe's story would get : the resource-
ful castaway on Do-It-Yourself-Island, always ingenious in making the
best of things. ("Grand entertainment for ail the family"). But Bufiuel
concentrates his power on the theological aspects of the novel, which
the modern reprints leave out, or the modern reader skips. Defoe's
Crusoe writes, "I am singled out and separated, as it were, from all
the world to be miserable. I am divided from mankind, a solitaire,
one banished from human society". And Bunuel's Crusoe rushes,
panic-stricken out to sea, yells across deep valleys to hear a human
voice in the faint echo of his own, and frantically searches the Bible
to learn why he has been forsaken by God.

In these films the manipulation of symbols and dream sequences
has been refined and controlled, so that they are neither arbitrary nor
arty. What for Salvador Dali was transitory exhibitionism, becomes
for Bufiuel a tool of analysis and exposition.

To everyone's surprise Buiiuel returned to Spain early this year,
and made, with the same cast as he used for Nazarin, the film Viridiana
which was given the highest award at the Cannes festival in June,
together with Colpi's Une Aussi Longue Absence. The most incredible
thing about this film, writes John Francis Lane in last month's Films
and Filming,

is that it was made in Spain. A film packed with erotic and blasphe-
mous symbolism made in the country with the most rigid censorship in the
Western world.

and he tells us as explanation.

It appears that Genera! Franco wants to confound his critics by demon-
strating his 'liberal' attitude to the intellectuals who stood out against his
regime in the 'thirties. "Come home and you will be forgiven" is the
message he has sent out. A Picasso or a Pablo Casals is obviously not
interested. But Bufiuel has taken up the challenge. Told he could make
whatever film he liked, he has taken the Generalissimo at his word. The
script of Viridiana was given official approval in Madrid. One would like
to know, however, how much of the blasphemous material was in that
script. I am sure, for example, that nobody expected a beggars' orgy to be
turned into a pose of The Last Supper, or that this scene would conclude
with an obscene gesture that will make censors all over the world sharpen
their scissors feverishly as soon as they hear about it!

Bunuel's anguished view of a Catholic-dominated society is very similar
to that of Fellini. Viridiana is a ruthless denunciation of the social and
religious values in Franco's Spain. The atmosphere is so mediaeval that
one is shocked to suddenly see a motor car or hear a pop song on the

Only one Spanish newspaper, El Pueblo, reported the award of the
prize to Viridiana. Subsequently the censorship has vetoed all mention
of the film. Buiiuel himself, talking about the film, in phrases that
bring to mind that straining of the very limits of their medium which
characterises Spanish painters and musicians, comments :

Octavio Praz says but that a man in chains should shut his eyes, the
world would explode. And 1 could add But that the white eye-lid of the
screen reflect its proper light, the universe would go up in flames. But for
the moment we can sleep in peace: the light of the cinema is conveniently
dosified and shackled.