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The Religious Affiliation of Director
Luis Bunuel (Luis Buñuel) had a devout Catholic upbringing. He grew up attending Catholic schools, Catholic worship servies, and Catholic religious festivals in a Spanish village that was so traditional and free from 20th Century technological trappings that he called it "medieval," a fact of which he was grateful. During most of his adulthood and career he identified himself as an atheist, although he continued to use Catholic images and themes in his films.
Surrealism and Communism were also driving influences for Bunuel during much of his life; both movements functioned essentially as his religion at various times. Along with celebrated painter Salvador Dali, Bunuel the filmmaker was considered a leader of the Surrealist movement. Ironically, while Bunuel grew up as a devout Catholic and left Catholicism as a young man, Salvador Dali became a devout convert to Catholicism later in life.
From: John Baxter, Bunuel, Carroll & Graf Publishers: New York City (1994), page 2:
[Bunuel's] occasional personal film -- El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Nazarin -- aired the obsessions that drove him: Communism, sexual fetishism, hatred of the Franco regime that had forced him into exile 1936, and his equal loathing of the Catholic Church -- which was none the less a fundamental theme of his work. It took another heretic and renegade to understand and appreciate the contradictions of his character. 'He is a deeply Christian man who hates God as only a Christian can,' Orson Welles told critic and director Peter Bogdanovich, 'and, of course, he's very Spanish. I see him as the most supremely religious director in the history of the movies.'
Jean-Claude Carriere, Bunuel's collaborator and biographer, said that Bunuel's obsessions were: "God, death, women, wine, dreams." (Source: Baxter, page 1).
Baxter, pages 9-10:
Politically, [Bunuel] was of the far left, his Communism the commitment of a lifetime. And his hostility to the Catholic Church in which he was raised was near-pathological. None of these are characteristics usually associated with the Spanish landed gentry. Yet Bunuel was typical of the country and the class that produced him... Despite its lost glory, however, the Aragon in which Luis Bunuel grew up was still feudal... Morality, charity and education were, as they had been for centuries, in the hands of the Church...
Baxter, pages 15-17:
[Bunuel] would be a Communist for most of his adult life, socializing and working almost exclusively with fellow-believers, but his politics would always carry a whiff of disdain for the common worker...
His sense of right and wrong cuts casually across the laws of State and Church... As for the Church, he loathes its sanctimony and pomp. 'The real priests are people like us,' he growls. 'People who defend the innocent; the enemies of hypocrisy, injustice and filthy lucre.'
At sixteen Luis experienced a seismic upheaval in his character. What had been passionate devotion to the Church turned almost overnight to contempt. Despite good grades, he left the Jesuit college and graduated two years later from the local high school.
Baxter, page 304:
Luis was always vague about the exact motives for this change of heart. He told Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent, two critics who interviewed him in the 1970s, that Darwin's Origin of Species made him 'take a sharp turn', but his wife Jeanne is probably closer when she writes, 'He hates the spiritual power of the Church, and its money.' Luis himself said only that his apostasy began with simple scepticism at the fables fed to him by the Church. His upbringing had turned him into a classic nineteenth-century pragmatist, with an informed intellectual interest it the material world, based on careful observation. He had watched insects, plants and animals, and seen a logical order in their lives and deaths. To convince him, a religious system needed to be rational, and to dove-tail with nature.
His first doubts about Catholicism were not philosophical but practical. If there was to be a literal Day of Judgement, for example, when the dead would rise, how could one earth hold the corpse of every person who had died since the beginning of time? The Church's standard response, 'Because God has decreed it', was insufficient.
Luis also distrusted a God so manifestly lacking the will to expunge his enemies. Perhaps, whispered the Tempter, He did not have the power. By deserting the Church, Luis challenged God to strike him down. Every apostate has his or her own method of throwing down the gauntlet... Luis... drank most of a bottle of cheap brandy and vomited it up during Mass. No bolt of lightning vulcanized him to the pew, and his scorn ripened into a hatred of the Church that would flourish for almost seventy years and generate one of the most consistently vituperative anti-ecclesiastical bodies of work in the history of art.
All his life, Bunuel would be drawn to stories of men who challenged God. Gilles de Rais, the hero of Huysmans's La-Bas, the Marquis de Sade, the heroes of Lewis's The Monk and Moral's Don Juan Tenorio thrilled him with their reckless insubordination; he would film, or consider filming, most of them. They fed his conviction that he had been right to abandon the Church...
Paradoxically Luis's departure robbed the Church of a potential zealot. With his medieval obsessiveness, his tendency to self-abnegation, his scorn of material comfort, he was set fair to become a religious ascetic. Even before his loss of faith, he had embarked on a monastic regime. He gave up meat and fresh bread, and took to wearing thin clothing and sandals even in Aragon's icy winters...
Like many men who leave the Church in adolescence, Bunuel spent the rest of his life seeking an alternative belief system. At first he thought science might provide a focus. Sensuality followed, then Surrealism, Communism, and finally the cinema. None provided exactly what he needed. Nor could he lose himself, as many Spaniards did, in patriotism. By his own specialized definition, Bunuel was a patriot, but he placed his belief in the national temperment and in certain old friends rather than in Spain itself, that 'closed and isolated society', as he called it, where 'each day was so like the next that they seemed to have been ordered for all eternity'. Physically and spiritually Bunuel lived always in exile, fleeing from a Spain and a Church which, nevertheless, as his films made obvious, lurked always at his shoulder.
[1973, ten years before Bunuel died.] After the success of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie there was no possibility that Bunuel would not immediately make another film. Charm had not even been mixed before [Serge] Silberman [his producer and financer] was pressing him... Silberman came down to see him, and they sampled the liqueur together. It put both men in reflective mood.
Baxter's book has much more material about Bunuel's Catholic upbringing and his adult attitudes toward Catholicism, far more than has been excerpted here.
'Luis, it's curious,' Silberman said. 'You were born in Zaragoza, you're Catholic; you were brought up by the Jesuits. Me, I was born on the border of Poland and Russia; I was brought up by lay Jews, and yet look at us; we understand one another.'
Baxter, page 152:
The space was needed because Jeanne [Luis Bunuel's wife] had finally brought Juan Luis [their son] home. Her arrival was as fraught as the marriage in general. The moment he heard about the birth of his son, Luis had badgered Jeanne to return but, despite repeated cables and postcards, she refused to travel in the winter with a small baby. She also wanted to spend her birthday with her parents who, cheated of a wedding, suggested a gala christening. Luis [Bunuel] angrily vetoed this. Juan Luis was not to be baptized. 'No son of mine is going to be brought up a Catholic! I don't want his head filled with devils and hells.'
Baxter, pages 153-154:
In June, Dona Maria phoned Jeanne and told her to get Juan Luis ready for a promenade, and sent a car. Instead of going to her mother-in-law's house, however, the driver took them to a church where she was waiting with a priest. Jeanne protested, but Dona Maria was adamant.
Baxter, page 191:
'Girl, be quiet! Luis has nothing to do with this. The baby must be baptized. I'm the grandmother and I'm responsible before God.'
[Luis Bunuel's son] Juan Luis was baptized with Dona Maria as the godmother and the priest as godfather. Jeanne dreaded having to break the news to Luis, but that evening Dona Maria rang and told him herself. His reaction was predictable. 'He insulted his mother on the telephone,' said Jeanne, 'and I can't tell you the words, because they were horrible. After that he turned his rage on me.'
For months he refused to talk to her. He relented only when she woke in pain one night and discovered an ominous lump in her stomach. For the fist time he showed some passion. 'Poor little thing,' he said. 'Tomorrow we'll go to the doctor.' By then, the lump had disappeared. However, Luis never really forgave what he regarded as a far greater betrayal of their marriage than his love affairs.
Since Californian public schools were so poor, [Luis Bunuel's son] Juan Luis went to the Sacred Heart [Catholic] school on Sunset Boulevard, continuing an education which Luis ensured was almost totally American. In deference to Dona Maria [his mother], Luis did agree to his son receiving his First Communion when he was eleven. The evening before, the priest sent all the communicants home for their fathers' blessings. When Juan Luis asked Luis to comply, he [Luis Bunuel] lifted him [his son] by the lapels of his white suit and snarled: 'If you tell my friends about this, I'll kill you.' He [Juan Luis] never got the blessing [from his father].
From: Luis Bunuel, My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, translated by Abigail Israel; Alfred A. Knopf: New York City (1984), pages 11-15:
It was in Calanda that I had my first encounters with death, which along with profound religious faith and the awakening of sexuality constituted the dominating force of my adolescence...
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 220:
In our village, when there was a funeral for one of the peasants, the coffin stood in front of the church door. The priests chanted while a vicar circled the flimsy catafalue sprinkling holy water, then raised the veil and scattered ashes on the chest of the corpse (a gesture reminiscent of the last scene of my Wuthering Heights). The heavy bell tolled, and as the pallbearers carried the coffin to the cemetary a few hundred yards from the village, the heartrending cries of the dead man's mother rang through the streets:
"My son! My son!" she wailed. "Don't leave me! Don't leave me all alone!"
The dead man's sisters, along with other female relatives and friends, joined in the lamentations, forming a chorus of mourners, of planideras. As in the Middle Ages, death had weight in Calanda; omnipresent, it was an integral part of our lives.
The same was true of faith. Deeply imbued with Catholicism, we never had a moment's doubt about these universal truths. One of my uncles was a priest, a sweet, gentle man we called Tio Santos. He gave me Latin and French lessons every summer, and I served as his acolyte. I also sang and played the violin in the Virgin of Carmen choir, along with one of my friends, who played the double bass, and the rector of Los Escolapios, a religious institute in Alcaniz, who played the cello. We were often invited to the Carmelite convent, later usurped by the Dominicans, which stood at the edge of the village. The convent was founded reward the end of the nineteenth century by a man named Forton who lived in Calanda and was married to an aristocrat from the Cascajares family. Both were fiercely pious and never missed a Mass. Later, at the start of the Civil War, the Dominicans in the convent were taken away and shot.
In Calanda there were two churches and seven priests, in addition to Tio Santos, who fell off a cliff during a hunt and then persuaded my father to hire him as an overseer of his estate. Religion permeated all aspects of our daily lives; I used to play at celebrating Mass in the attic of our house, with my sisters as attendants. I even owned an alb, and a collection of religious artifacts made from lead.
Our faith was so blind that at least until the age of fourteen, we believed in the literal truth of the famous Calanda miracle, which occurred in the Year of Our Lord 1640. The miracle is attributed to Spain's patron saint, the Virgin of Pilar, who got her name because she appeared to Saint John at the top of a pillar in Saragossa during the time of the Roman occupation. She's one of the two great Spanish Virgins, the other being the Virgin of Guadalupe, who always seemed to me vastly inferior.
The story goes that in 1640, Miguel Juan Pellicer, an inhabitant of Calanda, had his leg crushed under the wheel of a cart, and it had to be amputated. Now Pellicer was a very religious man who went to church every day to dip a finger into the oil that burned before the statue of the Virgin. Afterwards, he used to rub the oil on the Stump of his leg. One night, it seems that the Virgin and her angels descended from heaven, and when Pellicer awoke the next morning, he found himself with a brand-new leg.
Like all good miracles, this one was confirmed by numerous ecclesiastical and medical authorities--for without such attestation, there would, of course, be no miracles at all. In addition, this particular one generated an abundant literature and iconography. It was a magnificent miracle; next to it, the miracle of the Virgin ofLourdes seems to me rather paltry. Here was a man whose leg was dead and buried and who suddenly had a perfect new one! In its honor, my father gave the parish of Calanda a superb paso--one of those large icons carried aloft during religious processions and which the anarchists were so fond of burning during the Civil War. People in our village said that King Philip IV himself had come to kiss the famous leg--and no one ever challenged such claims.
Lest one think I exaggerate about these inter-Virginal rivalries:
Once in Saragossa a priest delivered a sermon about the Virgin of Lourdes, and while recognizing her merits, he nonetheless argued that they were substantially less significant than those of the Virgin of Pilar. It happened that there were a dozen Frenchwomen, tutors and governesses to the aristocratic families in Saragossa, in the congregation. Shocked by the sermon, they protested bitterly to the Archbishop Soldevilla Romero (who was assassinated several years later by the anarchists). They couldn't bear the idea that anyone might denigrate the most famous of all French Virgins!
Years later, in 1960, while I was living in Mexico, I told the Calanda miracle story to a French Dominican.
"But my dear friend," he smiled knowingly. "You do lay it on a bit thick, don't you?"
Given this heavy dosage of death and religion, it stood to reason that our joie de vivre was stronger than most. Pleasures so long desired only increased in intensity because we so rarely managed to satisfy them. Despite our sincere religious faith, nothing could assuage our impatient sexual curiosity and our erotic obsessions. Ac the age of twelve, I still believed that babies came from Paris--not via a stork, of course, but simply by train or car. One day an older friend set me straight, and suddenly there I was, initiated at long last into the great mystery and involved in those endless adolescent discussions and suppositions that characterize the tyranny of sex over youth. At the same time, "they" never ceased to remind us that the highest virtue was chastity, without which no life was worthy of praise. In addition, the strict separation between the sexes in village life only served to fuel our fantasies. In the end, we were worn out with our oppressive sense of sin, coupled with the interminable war between instinct and virtue.
"Do you know why Christ remained silent when Herod interrogated him?" the Jesuits used to ask. "Because Herod was a lascivious man, and lasciviousness is a vice that our Savior abhorred!"
I've often wondered why Catholicism has such a horror of sexuality. To be sure, there are countless theological, historical, and moral reasons; but it seems to me thac in a rigidly hierarchical society, sex--which respects no barriers and obeys no laws--can at any moment become an agent of chaos. I suppose that's why some Church Fathers, Saint Thomas Aquinas among them, were so severe in their dealings with the disturbing aspects of the flesh. Saint Thomas went so far as to affirm that the sexual act, even between husband and wife, was a venial sin, since it implied mental lust. (And lust, of course, is by definition evil.) Desire and pleasure may be necessary, since God created them, but any suspicion of concupiscence, any impure thought, must be ruthlessly cracked down and purged. After all, our purpose on this earth is first and foremost to give birth to more and more servants of God.
Ironically, this implacable prohibition inspired a feeling of sin which for me was positively voluptuous. And although I'm not sure why, I also have always felt a secret but constant link between the sexual act and death. I've tried to translate this inexplicable feeling into images, as in Un Chien andalou when the man caresses the woman's bare breasts as his face slowly changes into a death mask. Surely the powerful sexual repression of my youth reinforces this connection.
In Calanda, it was customary for the young man who could afford it to go twice a year to a brothel in Saragossa. I remember in 1917, during the Festival of the Virgin, some camareras (waitresses reputed to have loose morals) were imported by one of the cafes. For two days, clients prodded and pinched (the ritual pizco) until the girls finally gave up and left. (It goes without saying that no one went beyond the pinch; had they tried anything else, the civil guard would have stepped in immediately!)
The corollary to all this is that I hate warm climates, and if I live in Mexico, it's only by accident. I don't like the desert, the beach, the Arab, the Indian, or the Japanese civilizations, which makes me distinctly unmodern. To be frank, the only civilization I admire is the one in which I was raised, the Greco-Roman Christian.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 8:
I remember one agonizingly dry year when the population of the neighboring town of Castelceras organized a procession called a rogativa, led by the priests, to beg the heavens for just one small shower. When the appointed morning arrived, a mass of clouds appeared suddenly and hung darkly over the village. The procession seemed irrelevant; but, true to form, the clouds dispersed before it was over. When the blistering sun reappeared, a gang of ruffians retaliated. They snatched the statue of the Virgin from her pedestal at the head of the procession, and as they ran across the bridge, they threw her into the Guadalope River.
Many of Bunuel's films were intentionally sacrilegious and anti-Catholic, although some of his films were considered by many Catholics and even Catholic leaders as being pro-Catholic. Bunuel's film The Nazarin (1951) was included on William Park's list of "The Fifty Best Catholic Movies of All Time" (Source: William Park. "The Fifty Best Catholic Movies of All Time", Crisis 15, no. 10 (March 1997): 82-91; URL: http://www.catholic.net/rcc/Periodicals/Crisis/1997-11/f8.html). Park wrote: "Although Bunuel was anticlerical most of his life, in this film, based on a novel by Galdos, he captures what it means to bear the cross."
In my own village of Calanda, where I was born on the twenty-second of February, 1900, the Middle Ages lasted until World War I. It was a closed and isolated society, with clear and unchanging distinctions among the classes. The respectful subordination of the peasants to the big landowners was deeply rooted in tradition, and seemed unshakable. Life unfolded in a linear fashion, the major moments marked by the daily bells of the Church of Pilar. They tolled for Masses, vespers, and the Angelus, as well as for certain critical, and more secular, events--the tocsin that signaled fire, and the glorious chimes which rang only for major Sunday festivals. There was also a special toque de agonia, a deep, somber bell that tolled slowly when someone had begun his final combat, and a lighter bronze bell that rang for a dying child. In the fields, on the roads, in the streets of the town, everyone stopped whatever he was doing to ask who was about to die.
In 1955, Spain finally was willing to allow Bunuel to direct a film in Spain, after he had been banished from his home country for many years. From Baxter, pages 3-4:
[Bunuel] already had an idea for the plot. he often fantasized about using drugs or hypnotism to render [women] helpless. A beautiful Englishwoman in the street reminded him of Victoria Eugenia, Spain's beautiful English-born blonde queen during the 1910s... The idea of making love to her as she lay in a trance led him, he wrote in his autobiographical My Last Breath [My Last Sigh], to the story of 'a young woman... drugged by an old man.... It struck me that the woman should be pure, and I made her a novice [nun].'
His resentment of the [Catholic] Church triggered a vision of the nun becoming the mistress of a rowdy household which turned on its head the pious exactitude of the convent. Perhaps the nun would throw the house open to beggars...'
This became Bunuel's film Viridiana, in which beggars sacrilegiously reeanct the scene from Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Franco's regime had such confidence in Bunuel that they sent the film to the Cannes Film Festival without ever screening it. The film won the Palme d'Or for Best Film at the festival, and it was only afterward that word was sent to the Franco regime and Catholic leaders that they were harshly targeted by the film. From Baxter, page 8:
It took a day for the scandal to explode, but when it did, the world knew about it. In L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's mouthpiece, a Spanish Dominican named Fierro excoriated Viridiana as 'sacrilegious and blasphemous'. Munoz-Fontan saw it for the first time and realized that, apart from accepting his suggestion of the card game, Luis had made none of the promised changes.
Baxter, pages 255-256:
Franco did not see it at the time; the Vatican's fury was enough. He disciplined all twenty members of the Cannes delegation [from Spain]... Viridiana and Bunuel were comprehensivly condemned. Any negatives and prints of the film in Spain were seized or burned, UNINCI was liquidated and all Bunuel films suppressed.
Viridiana repositioned Bunuel at the cenre of the cinema world. He never said so, but this had probably been his plan fro the moment the film was proposed. Scandal, after all, had worked well with Un Chien Andalou...
Baxter, pages 261-262:
Since Viridiana was a Mexican production, Spain could not stop its distribution. It did the next best thing, sequestering the original negative and banning all Bunuel films. However, all the copies needed of Viridiana culd be generated from the duplicate negative smuggled to Paris by Juan Luis. Inevitably the scandal sharpened interest...
Franco, who responded to the Church's anger rather than the film's content, did not himself see Viridiana for years. Afterwards he is said to have remarked, 'I can't understand the fuss.' But, as Bunuel commented, how can you shock a man who has committed so many atrocities? Meanwhile, tour operators in Barcelona offered day trips to cities in southern France like Perpignan and Biarritz. The fare included a morning's shopping and an afternoon screening of Viridiana. But it would not open publicly in Spain until 1977.
The General's mild reaction suggests the respect in which, despite the fact that he had hoodwinked the nation, Bunuel was still held. Even after Viridiana, it would have been delighted to have him back -- on its terms. 'The main problem with Bunuel for Franco's regime,' say John Hopwell, '... was that he had the personality and the genius to found a school of film-making in Spain. A country whose moral standards were set by the Church could hardly have its film standards set by its most famous atheist.'...
Viridiana continued to encounter problems in Catholic countries. Italy, still smarting over Fellini's La Dolce Vita, did not show it until 1963, wheen it was banned and Bunuel sentenced in abstentia to a year in prison. In Belgium, where the Union of Film Critics awarded it their Grand Prix, copies were seized and mutilated. Even the Swiss loathed it. At the same time, more thouhtful Catholic critics were finding much to praise.
Bunuel, begging the question of whether the depiction of the damage wrought on the will by belief can properly be called 'religious', always argued that the film was essentially devout, 'because in every scnee there is an underlying sense of sin. The old man cannot violate his niece because of this.' Gabriel Figueroa too believed taht Bunuel was only 'irreverent; not against Catholicism. The irony is that even though his films are labelled anti-religious and anti-Catholic, Bunuel is actually preparing for his next life, trying to come nearer to God all the time. He is one of the most religious of men.' Luis would have his final satisfaction in 1977, when an aged Dominican approached him during the shooting of That Obscure Object of Desire. He introduced himself as Father Fierro, who had begun the anti-Viridiana furore, and asked forgiveness. Bunuel threw him off the set.
The year's only serious contenders for Best Film at Cannes 1962 were The Exterminating Angel and Antonioni's The Eclipse...
An added drawback to widespread distribution of Bunuel's films was the opposition among Catholics, for whom his name would always carry a whiff of sulphur. (The Catholic Film Office also gave an award at Cannes, but they preferred The Eclipse.) With his usual false naivete, Luis professed to be surprised and a little hurt at their disapproval. 'There are always details in my films which give rise to [accusations of blasphemy],' he said. 'Some of these details I take from real life. For instance, in The Exterminating Angel, where the cancer victim says to the doctor that... she will go to Lourdes where she will buy a "washable plastic Virgin". Well, Virgins are sold at Lourdes with that description. I have one in my house n Mexico.'
He had friends in the priesthood who, he insisted, secretly approved of his films. 'You know that the Dominicans are not only in favour of Nazarin,' he told Francisco Aranda earnestly, 'but are also for Viridiana?' But he neutralized any good this acquintance miht have done by telling priest friends that Christ was 'an idiot'. 'How could you think that,' one asked, 'of a man who said things like "Love thy neighbor as thyself"?' Luis replied: 'Give me a men and in fifteen minutes I'll write you ten sentences like that.' His sparring with the Church was like his skirmishes with Franco. In neigher case was he interested in joining their club. Even if invited, he would remain disobedient of their rules and carefless of their etiquette. However, just as he had fun with his Republican friends by pretending to surrender to Franco with Viridiana, he enjoyed twitting the agnostics by threatening to call a priest to his bedside when he was dying. This final Bunuel gallows joke was to become unexpectedly true in real life.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 18:
I'm lucky to have spent my childhood in the Middle Ages, or, as Huysmans described it, that "painful and exquisite" epoch--painful in terms of its material aspects perhaps, but exquisite in its spiritual life. What a contrast to the world of today!
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 19-21:
There is a custom, practiced perhaps only in certain Aragonian villages, called the Drums or Good Friday. On that day, drums are beaten from Alcaniz to Hijar; but nowhere are they beaten with such mysterious power as in Calanda. The ritual dates from the end of the eighteenth century and had already died out by 1900, but one of Calanda's priests, Mosen Vicente Allanegui, brought it back to life.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 27-30:
The drums of Calanda beat almost without pause from noon on Good Friday until noon on Saturday, in recognition of the shadows that covered the earth at the moment Christ died, as well as the earthquakes, the falling rocks, and the rending of the temple veil. It's a powerful and strangely moving communal ceremony which I heard for the first time in my cradle. Up until recently, I often beat the drums myself; in fact, I've introduced these famous drums to many friends, who were all as strongly affecced as I was. I remember a reunion in 1980 with a few friends in a medieval castle not far from Madrid where we surprised everyone with a drum serenade imported directly from Calanda. Many of my closest friends were among the guests--Julio Alejandro, Fernando Rey, Jose-Luis Barros--and all of them were profoundly moved, although unable to say exactly why. (Five even confessed to having cried!) I don't really know what evokes this emotion, which resembles the kind of feeling often aroused when one listens to music. It seems to echo some secret rhythm in the outside world, and provokes a real physical shiver that defies the rational mind. My son, Juan-Luis, once made a short film about these drums, and I myself have used their somber rhythms in several movies, especially L'Age d'or and Nazarin.
Back in my childhood, only a couple of hundred drummers were involved in this rite, but nowadays there are over a thousand, including six hundred to seven hundred drums and four hundred bombos. Toward noon on Good Friday, the drummers gather in the main square opposite the church and wait there in total silence; if anyone nervously raps out a few bears, the crowd silences him. When the first bell in the church tower begins to toll, a burst of sound, like a terrific thunderclap, electrifies the entire village, for all the drums explode at the same instant. A sort of wild drunkenness surges through the players; they beat for two hours until the procession (called El Pregon, after the official "town crier" drum) forms, then leaves the square and makes a complete tour of the town. The procession is usually so long that the rear is still in the square when the leaders have already reappeared at the opposite side!
When I was young, there were all sorts of wonderful characters in the parade--Roman soldiers with false beards called putuntunes (a word that sounds very like the beating of the drums), centurions, a Roman general, and Longinos, a personage dressed in a full suit of medieval armor. Longinos, the man who theoretically defended Christ against his attackers, used to fight a duel with the general. As they locked swords, the host of drummers would form a circle around them, but when the general spun around once, an act that symbolized his death, Longinos sealed the sepulchre and began his watch. Nearby, Christ himself was represented by a statue lying in a glass box.
During the procession, everyone chants the biblical story of the Passion; in fact, the phrase "vile Jews" used to crop up frequently, until it was finally removed by Pope John XXIII. By five o'clock, the ceremony itself is over and there's a moment of silence, until the drums begin again, to continue until noon on the following day.
Another fascinating aspect of this ritual are the drumrolls, which are composed of five or six different rhythms, all of which I remember vividly. When two groups beating two different tempi meet on one of the village streets, they engage in a veritable duel which may last as long as an hour--or at least until the weaker group relents and takes up the victor's rhythm. By the early hours of Saturday morning, the skin on the drums is stained with blood, even though the beating hands belong to hardworking peasants.
On Saturday morning, many villagers put down their drums and retrace the Calvary, climbing a Way of the Cross on a hillside near the village. The rest continue beating, however, until everyone gathers at seven o'clock for the funeral procession, del entierro. As the bell tolls the noon hour, the drums suddenly fall silent, but even after the normal rhythms of daily life have been re-established, some villagers still speak in an oddly halting manner, an involuntary echo of the beating drums.
My schooling began with the Corazonistas, the Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an order apparently more highly esteemed than the Lazaristas. Most of the brothers were French; they taught me to read in their own language as well as in Spanish. In fact, I can still recite one of the exercises...
Bunuel's autobiography includes substantial more material about his Catholic upbringing and its influence on his life and films.
At the end of that first year, I entered the Jesuit Colegio del Salvador as a day student, and I remained there for seven years. (The enormous building that housed the school is gone now and has been replaced by a bank.) Every day began at seven-thirty with Mass and ended with evening prayers. The boarders were entitled to complete uniforms, but we day students only had the right to wear the school cap with its regulation stripe. The Jesuits felt that heating one room was quite sufficient, so my keenest memory of this period is of a numbing cold, a great many heavy scarves, and chilblains on our ears, fingers, and toes. True to tradition, their iron discipline tended to make life even colder. At the merest infraction, a student would instantly find himself on his knees behind his desk, or in the middle of the classroom, arms outstretched, under the stern eye of the proctor, who surveyed the entire room from a balcony flanked by a ramp and a staircase.
We never had a moment's privacy. In study hall, for example, when a pupil went to the bathroom (a rather slow process, since we had to go one by one), the proctor watched him until he went out the door. Once in the corridor, the pupil found another priest, who kept an eye on him the entire length of the hallway, until he reached a third priest stationed at the bathroom door.
Yes, the Jesuits took great pains to make sure there was no contact among us. We always walked double file with our arms crossed on our chests (which kept us from passing notes) and at least a yard between the lines. We marched to the courtyard for recess in two silent columns, until a bell signaled permission to shout and run. Those were the rules--constant surveillance, no "dangerous" contact, total silence--in study hall, in the chapel, even in the dining room.
Firmly grounded in these rigorously enforced principles, our educations proceeded apace. Religion had the lead role; we studied apologetics, the catechism, the lives of the saints. We were fluent in Latin. Basically, the Jesuits used many of the same pedagogical techniques that had governed scholastic argumentation in the Middle Ages. The desafio, for instance. If I were so inspired, I could challenge any one of my classmates to a debate on any of the daily lessons. I would call his name, he would stand up, I would announce my challenge and ask him a question. The language of these j ousts was strictly medieval: "Contra te! Super te!" (Against you! Above you!) "Vis cento?" (Do you want to bet a hundred?) "Volo!" (Yes!) At the end of the tourney, the professor designated a winner, and both combatants went back to their seats.
I also remember my philosophy course where the professor, smiling with pity and compassion, explained the doctrines of "poor" Kant, who was so lamentably deceived in his metaphysical reasoning. We took notes frantically, because in the next class the professor often called on a student and demanded: "Refute Kant for me!" If (he student had learned his lesson well, he could do it in two minutes.
I was about fourteen when I began to have doubts about this warm, protective religion. They started with the problem of hell and the Last Judgment, two realities I found inconceivable. I just couldn't imagine all those dead souls from all lands and all ages rising suddenly from the bowels of the earth, as they did in medieval paintings, for the final resurrection. I used to wonder where all those billions and billions of cadavers could possibly be; and if there was such a thing as a Last Judgment, then what good was the judgment that was supposed to come right after death and which, theoretically, was rumored to be irrevocable? (Today, of course, there are many priests who don't believe in hell or the devil, or even the Last Judgment. My schoolboy questions would undoubtedly amuse them no end.)
Despite the discipline, the silence, and the cold, I have fond memories of the Colegio del Salvador. There was never the slightest breath of scandal, sexual or otherwise, to trouble the perfect order. I was a good student, but I also had one of the worst conduct records in the school. I think I spent most of my recesses during my last year standing in the corner of the courtyard, forbidden to join the games.
I remember one particularly dramatic episode that occurred when I was about thirteen. It was Holy Tuesday, and I was supposed to go to Calanda the following day to beat the drums. As I was walking to class about half an hour before Mass, I ran into two of my friends in front of the motorcycle race track opposite the school. Next to the track was a notorious tavern, into which my conniving classmates shoved me. Somehow they persuaded me to buy a bottle of a cheap but devastating cognac commonly known as matarratas, or rat killer. They knew full well how difficult it was for me to resist that particular temptation. We left the tavern and walked along the river, drinking as we went. Little did I know that as I was swallowing mouthfuls straight from the bottle, they were merely wetting their lips. In no time at all the world was spinning.
My dear friends were kind enough to lead me to the chapel, where I knelt down with a sigh of relief. During the first part of the Mass, I stayed on my knees with my eyes shut tight, just like everyone else, but when it was gospel-reading time, the congregation had to rise. I gathered my strength and made an enormous effort, but as I staggered to my feet, my stomach turned upside down and I threw up all over the church floor. I was immediately escorted to the infirmary, and then just as quickly home. There was talk of expulsion. My father was furious, threatening to call off our trip to Calanda (probably the worst punishment he could have imagined, at least in my eyes); but, ever tender-hearted, he backed down at the last minute.
I remember, too, when I was fifteen and about to take my final exams, the study hall proctor suddenly giving me a swift kick for no apparent reason. As if that weren't humiliating enough, he followed it by calling me a payaso--an idiot, a fool. I walked out and took my exam alone in another room. When I got home that evening, I told my mother that it had finally happened--the Jesuits had expelled me at last. My mother rushed to the director, who assured her that such an idea was sheer fantasy. (It appears I'd gotten the highest grade in the class on that world history exam, and there was no thought whatsoever of expelling me.)
I, on the other hand, refused categorically to return, and so I was enrolled at the Institute, the local public high school, where I studied for the last two years before my baccalaureate. During those two years, I met a law student who introduced me to certain philosophical, literary, and historical works (in cheap editions) that no one at the Colegio del Salvador had even so much as mentioned. Suddenly I discovered Spencer, Rousseau, Marx! Reading Darwin's The Origin of Species was so dazzling that I lost what little faith I had left (at the same time that I lost my virginity, which went in a brothel in Saragossa).
Chapter 15 in Bunuel's autobiography is titled "Still an Atheist . . . Thank God!", and provides a fairly detailed outline of some fo the filmmaker's central philosophical and religious beliefs. From: My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 171-176:
Chance governs all things; necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for any one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 182-183:
I've often fantasized my ideal scenario, which would begin at a perfectly banal moment--for example, a beggar crossing a street. He sees a hand emerge from the open door of a luxurious car and toss a half-smoked Havana into the street. The beggar stops short to pick up the cigar, another car strikes him, and he dies instantly. From this one accident comes an infinite series of questions: What was the beggar doing in the street at that hour? Why did the man smoking the cigar throw it away at that precise moment? The answers to questions like these provoke other questions, just as we so often find ourselves at complicated crossroads which lead to other crossroads, to ever more fantastic labyrinths. Somehow we must choose a path. In other words, by tracing apparent causes (which are really no more than accidents), we can travel dizzily back in time, back through history--all the way back, in fact, to the original protozoa. (We can also follow the scenario in the opposite direction and see that the act of throwing a cigar out the window, which leads to a beggar's death, can change the course of history and lead to the end of the world.)
The perfect example of this historical accident is Roger Caillois's Ponce Pilate, a gorgeous book which is really the quintessence of a certain kind of French culture. In it, Pilate has every reason in the world to wash his hands and let Christ be crucified. That's the opinion of his political adviser, who's worried about trouble in Judea. It's also what Judas wanes, so that God's intentions can be realized. Even Marduk, the Chaldean prophet who knows what's going to happen after the Messiah's death, wants Pilate to leave Christ where he is. But Pilate is honest and committed to justice, and so after a sleepless night he rejects all this advice and decides to give Christ his freedom. His disciples embrace him joyfully, Christ continues his teaching, and he dies at a ripe old age, in everyone's opinion a saintly man. For a couple of centuries, pilgrims visit his tomb, but then he's forgotten. Had this happened, just think how different the history of the world would have been.
This book fueled my fantasies for a very long time; and despite what people say about historical determinism and about the will of an omnipotent God who wanted Pilate to wash his hands, I still feel he might not have done so. By refusing the basin and water, he would have changed the world; it was pure chance that he accepted them.
Of course, this is risky reasoning. If our birth is totally a matter of chance, the accidental meeting of an egg and a sperm (but why, in fact, that particular egg and sperm among all the millions of possibilities?), chance nonetheless disappears when societies are formed, when the fetus--and then the child--finds himself subjected to its laws. And yet these laws and customs, these historical and social conditions at any given period--all these things, in other words, that claim to contribute to the forward march of the civilization to which we belong by the good or bad luck of our birth--appear as so many attempts to master fate. The only trouble is that fate is full of surprises, because it never stops trying to adapt itself to social necessity.
The only way out is not to see these laws, conceived so that we can live together in some reasonable fashion, as primordial necessities. It isn't "necessary" that the world exist, that we be here, living and dying. We're the children of accident; the universe could have gone on without us until the end of time. I know, it's an impossible image--an empty and infinite universe, an abyss which for some inexplicable reason has been deprived of life. Perhaps there are in fact other worlds just like this; after all, deep down inside, we all have a penchant for chaos.
Some people dream of an infinite universe; others see it as finite in space and time. I suppose I'm somewhere in between. I can't conceive of an infinite universe, and yet the idea of a finite one, which by definition will cease to exist one fine day, plunges me into a fascinating and horrifying void. And so I swing back and forth from one image to the other, and have no answers.
If we could imagine that there is no such thing as chance, that the history of the world is logical and even predictable, then we'd have to believe in God. We'd have to assume the existence of a great watchmaker, a supreme organizer. Yet, by the same token, if God can do anything, might he not have created a world governed by chance? No, the philosophers tell us. Chance cannot be one of God's creations, because it's the negation of God. The two are mutually exclusive, and since I myself have no faith (which is also often a matter of chance), there seems to be no way to break out of this vicious circle--which is why I've never entered it in the first place.
In the end, belief and the lack of it amount to the same thing. If someone were to prove to me--right this minute--that God, in all his luminousness, exists, it wouldn't change a single aspect of my behavior. I find it rather hard to believe that God is watching me every second, that he worries about my health, my desires, my mistakes. After all, if I ever accepted such a notion, I'd have to believe in my eternal damnation.
What am I to God? Nothing, a murky shadow. My passage on this earth is too rapid to leave any traces; it counts for nothing in space or in time. God really doesn't pay any attention to us, so even if he exists, it's as if he didn't. My form of atheism, however, leads inevitably to an acceptance of the inexplicable. Mystery is inseparable from chance, and our whole universe is a mystery. Since I reject the idea of a divine watchmaker (a notion even more mysterious than the mystery it supposedly explains), then I must consent to live in a kind of shadowy confusion. And insofar as no explication, even the simplest, works for everyone, I've chosen my mystery. At least it keeps my moral freedom intact.
People often ask me about science. Doesn't science, they say, look for ways to clarify the mystery? Perhaps, I reply; but, to be honest, science doesn't interest me much. I find it analytical, pretentious, and superficial--largely because it doesn't address itself to dreams, chance, laughter, feelings, or paradox--in other words, all the things I love the most. As a character in [Bunuel's film] The Milky Way declares:
"The fact that science and technology fill me with contempt can't help but force me to believe in God." I'd have to disagree, because one can also choose, as I have, simply to live in the mystery.
All my life I've been harassed by questions: Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that? This rage to understand, to fill in the blanks, only makes life more banal. If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence.
Fortunately, somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether. I suppose that's why Christianity invented the notion of intentional sin. When I was younger, my so-called conscience forbade me to entertain certain images--like fratricide, for instance, or incest. I'd tell myself these were hideous ideas and push them out of my mind. But when I reached the age of sixty, I finally understood the perfect innocence of the imagination. It took that long for me to admit that whatever entered my head was my business and mine alone. The concepts of sin or evil simply didn't apply; I was free to ilet my imagination go wherever it chose, even if it produced bloody images and hopelessly decadent ideas. When I realized that, I sudldenly accepted everything. "Fine," I used to say to myself. "So I sleep with my mother. So what?" Even now, whenever I say that, the notions of sin and incest vanish beneath the great wave of my inidifference.
As inexplicable as the accidents that set it off, our imagination is a crucial privilege. I've tried my whole life: simply to accept the images that present themselves to me without trying to analyze them. I remember when we were shooting That Obscure Object of Desire in Seville and I suddenly found myself telling Fernando Key, at the end of a scene, to pick up a big sack filled with tools lying on a bench, sling it over his shoulder, and walk away. The action was completely irrational, yet it seemed absolutely right to me. Still, I was worried about it, so I shot two versions of the scene: one with the sack, one without. But during the rushes the following day, the whole crew agreed that the scene was much 1 better with the sack. Why? I can't explain it, and I don't enjoy rumimaging around in the cliches of psychoanalysis.
Amusingly enough, a great many psychiatrists and analysts have had a great deal to say about my movies. I'm grateful for their interest, but I never read their articles, because when all is said and done, psychoanalysis, as a therapy, is strictly an upper-class privilege. Some analysts--in despair, I suppose--have declared me "unanalzable," as if I belonged to some other species or had come from another planet (which is always possible, of course). At my age, I let them say whatever they want. I still have my imagination, and in its impregnable innocence it will keep me going until the end of my days. All this compulsion to "understand" everything fills me with horror. I love the unexpected more and more the older I get, even though little by little I've retired from the world. (Last year, I calculated that in six days, or one hundred and forty-four hours, I spent only three hours talking with friends. The rest of the time I was alone with my fantasies, a glass of water or a cup of coffee, an aperitif twice a day, a sudden memory or image that took me by surprise. These days, one thing leads to another until suddenly I find that night has fallen.)
I do apologize if these few pages seem vague and tedious, but thoughts like these are part of my life, along with all the other frivolous details. I'm not a philosopher, and I don't do very well with abstractions. If those who fancy themselves possessed of a philosophical bent smile as they read, I'm glad to have given them an amusing moment. It seems like finding myself back in school with the Jesuits and hearing a professor say, "Refute Bunuel for me." (As with Kant, I'm sure it wouldn't take more than a couple of minutes.)
In his book The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, I was described as an atheist, an accusation that at the time was worse than being called a Communist. Ironically, at the same moment that Dali's book appeared, a man named Prendergast who was part of the Catholic lobby in Washington began using his influence with government officials to get me fired. [At Bunuel's job at the Museum of Modern Art he was tasked with selecting and distributing anti-Nazi propaganda films to North and South America, and he was also supposed work on producing such films.] I knew nothing at all about it, but one day when I arrived at my office, I found my two secretaries in tears. They showed me an article in a movie magazine called Motion Picture Herald about a certain peculiar character named Luis Bunuel, author of the scandalous L'Age d'or and now an editor at the Museum of Modern Art. Slander wsn't exactly new to me, so I shrugged it off, but my secretaries insisted that this was really very serious. When I went into the projection room, the projectionist, who'd also read the piece, greeted me by wagging his finger in my face and smirking, "Bad Boy!"
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 205-206:
Finally, I too became concerned and went to see Iris, who was also in tears. I felt as if I'd suddenly been sentenced to the electic chair. She told me that the year before, when Dali's book had appeared, Pendergast had lodged several protests with the State Department, which in turn began to pressure the museum to fire me. They'd managed to keep things quiet for a year; but now, with this article, the scandal had gone public, on the same day that American troops disembarked in Africa.
Although the director of the museum, Alfred Barr, advised me not to give in, I decided to resign, and found myself once again out on the street, forty-three and jobless.
In 1930, Pierre Unik and I had written a screenplay based on Wuthering Heights. Like all the surrealists, I was deeply moved by this novel, and I had always wanted to try the movie. The opportunity finally came, in Mexico in 1953... There's one scene I remember vividly... in which an old man is reading to a child from the bible, a little-known passage which doesn't appear in all editions but is far superior to the Song of Songs. Of course, the author had to put these words intot he mouths of unbelievers in order to get them printed. I can't resist quoting the passage in full; it's from the Book of Wisdom, Chapter II, verses 1-9:
The last page of Bunuel's autobiography, from My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 256:
For they have said, reasoning with themselves, but not right: The time of our life is short and tedious, and in the end of a man there is no remedy, and no man hath been known to have returned from hell:
Reading this profession of atheism is like reading one of the more sublime pages in de Sade.
For we are born of nothing, and after this we shall be as if we had not been: for the breath in our nostrils is smoke: and speech a spark to move our heart,
Which being put out, our body shall be ashes, and our spirit shall be poured abroad as soft air, and our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud, and shall be dispersed as a mist, which is driven away by the beams of the sun, and overpowered with the heat thereof:
And our name in time shall be forgotten, and no man shall have any remembrance of our works.
For our time is as the passing of a shadow, and there is no going back of our end: for it is fast sealed, and no man returneth.
Come therefore, and let us enjoy the good things that are present, and let us speedily use the creatures as in youth.
Let us fill ourselves with costly wine, and ointments: and let not the flower of the time pass by us.
Let us crown ourselves with roses, before they be withered: let no meadow escape our riot.
Let none of us go without his part in luxury: let us everywhere leave tokens of joy: for this is our portion, and this our lot.
As I drift toward my last sigh I often imagine a final joke. I convoke around my deathbed my friends who are confirmed atheists, as I am. Then a priest, whom I have summoned, arrives; and to the horror of my friends I make my confession, ask for absolution for my sins, and receive extreme unction. After which I turn over on my side and exire.
Baxter, page 312:
But will I have the strengh to joke at that moment?
Ironically, Luis's last months were made more agreeable by his friendship with a Catholic priest. Luis had met Father Julian Pablo at Alatriste's home, and the thin, balding, faintly effeminate priest became a regular visitor at the Bunuel house, though always, in deference to Luis's convictions, in civilian clothes. A familiar face around the movie business, he had ambitions to become a film-maker, and did go on to produce and direct a few films.
Baxter, page 244:
Many regarded Pablo as a somewhat sinister force in Luis's life but, as his health worsened, Bunuel came to depend on these visits. If Pablo had not arrived by 5 p.m., he began to fret. Often they simply sat in silence, but if they did wrangle it was mostly over points of Catholic dogma. Agnostic friends worried that the priest might be persuading Luis to make his peace with the Church, but both men denied it. 'He knows more about the Church and its doctrines than I do,' Pablo admitted.
Luis seems neer to have read Graham Greene, but there is an affinity between the work of the two men at this period [circa 1955]. Both were remote, ascetic, misanthropic, Catholic/atheist. Greene's protagonists in The Heart of the Matter and The Comedians, lonely men drifting along the edges of empire, troubled by moral doubts, losing themselves in casual infidelities but obsessed always with the lack of meaning in their lives, are interchangeable with Valerio and his equivalents inn Death in the Jungle and Fever Moments at El Pao, except that social justice rather than God saves Bunuel's men. The films are scattered with quasi-devotional fetish objects that Greene might have relished, like Valerio's photograph of a cement statue of Christ which World War II engineers in Africa had pressed into service as a telegraph pole, so that insulators branched from his face like exotic flowers.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 48-49:
Catholics in general took the film badly. Bunuel was widely quoted as having joked, 'Thank God I'm still an atheist,' and though this was hardly original... it gained added venom coming from the mouth of so unregenerate an enemy of the Church. Some sticklers also complained about Luis showing a priest socializing with a dictator.
Men of my generation, particularly if they're Spanish, suffer from a hereditary timidity whee sex and women are concerned. Our sexual desire has to be seen as the product of centuries of repressive and emascuulating Catholicism, whose many taboos--no sexual relations outside of marriage (not to mention within), no pictures or words that might suggest the sexual act, no matter how obliquely...
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 55:
With rare exceptions, we Spaniards knew of only two ways to make love--in a brothel or in marriage. When I went to France for the first tim ein 1925, I was shocked, in fact disgusted, by the men and women I saw kissing in public, or living together without the sanction of marriage. Such customs were unimaginable to me; they seemed obscene. Much of this has changed, of course, over the years; lately, my own sexual desire has waned and finally disappeared, even in dreams. And I'm delighted; it's as if I've finally been relieved of a tyrannical burden.
...I have fond memories of both my sojourn with the Jesuits [while a student] and my military service...
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 111:
For several years, Spain had been governed by the "benevolent dictator" Primo de Rivera, the father of the founder of the Falangists. Both labor and the anarchists were beginning to organize, however, as was the Spanish Communist party. One day, at the railroad station in Madrid on my way back from Sargossa, I learned that Dato, the prime minister, had been assassinated by anarchists on the street in broad daylight... Soon afterward, we heard that the anarchists, led by Ascaso and Durutti, had assassinated Soldevilla Romero, the archbishop of Sargossa, an odious character who was thoroughly detested by everyone, including my uncle the canon [an office held by priests in the Catholic Church]. That evening at the Residencia, we drank to the damnation of his soul.
There were several subgroups within the [Surrealist] movement, which had formed according to certain curious affinities. [Salvador] Dali's best friends were Crevel and Eluard, while I felt closest to Aragon, Georges Sadoul, Ernst, and Pierre Unik. Although Unik seems to have been forgotten today, I found him a marvelous young man, brilliant and fiery. He was also an atheist, despite the fact that his father was a Jewish tailor who also happened to be a rabbi. I remember Pierre telling his father one day of my desire to convert to Judaism. (Clearly explained, it was to scandalize my family.) But despite his father's willingness to see me, I backed out at the last minute, preferring to "remain faithful" to Christianity.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 130:
During this strange time, I met several mythical characters. I loved having my shoes shined in the studio foyer and watching the famous faces go by. One day [Utah native] Mack Swain (Ambrosio, as he was called in Spain)--that huge comedian with the incredibly black eyes who often played opposite Chaplin--sat down next to me...
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 147:
When we were growing up, we instinctively disliked homosexuals, as my response the innuendoes about Lorca would suggest. Once I even played the agent provocateur in a public urinal in Madrid, a role that in hindsight seems absurd and embarrassing. While my cohorts waited outside, I entered the cubicle and began baiting whoever was inside. One evening, a man responded; I ran outside, and the minute he emerged, we gave him a sound thrashing.
There is considerable material in Bunuel's autobiography about his support of Communism, which he eventually rejected. Here is one excerpt, from My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 166:
At that time in Spain, homosexuality as something dark and secret. Even in Madrid, we knew of only three or four "official" pederasts. One of them was a marquis whom I met one day while waiting for a streetcar. I'd bet a friend of mine that I could make twenty-five pesetas in five minutes, so I went up to him, fluttered my eyelashes, and began to talk. We made plans to meet the following day for a drink, and when I hinted that I was very young and the school books were very expensive, he gave me twenty-five pesetas. I didn't go to the rendezvous, of course; but a week later, when I ran into him again in the same streetcar, I gave him the finger.
I remained sympathetic to the Communist party until the end of the 1950s, when I finally had to confront my revulsion. Fanaticism of any kind has always repelled me, and Marxism was no exception; it was like any other religion that claims to have found the truth. In the 1930s, for instance, Marxist doctrine permitted no mention of the unconscious mind or of the numerous and profound psychological forces in the individual. Everything could be explained, they said, by socioeconomic mechanisms, a notion that seemed perfectly derisory to me. A doctrine like that leaves out at least half of the human being.
Bunuel discusses strife in Spain and in Calanda, where he grew up. From: My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 168-170:
When the anarchist forces from Barcelona reached the outskirts of town at the beginning of the war, these notable citizens decided to pay a visit to the prison.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 192:
"We've got a proposition for you," they told the prisoners. "We're at war, and heaven only knows who's going to win. We're all Calandians, so we'll let you out on the condition that, whatever happens, all of us promise not to engage in any acts of violence whatsoever."
The prisoners agreed, of course, and were immediately released; a few days later, when the anarchists entered Calanda, their first act was to execute eighty-two people. Among the victims were nine Dominicans, most of the leading citizens of the council, some doctors and landowners, and even a few poor people whose only crime was a reputation for piety.
The deal had been made in the hope of keeping Calanda free from the violence that was tearing the rest of the country apart, to make the town a kind of no man's land; but neutrality was a mirage. It was fatal to believe that anyone could escape time or history.
Another extraordinary event that occurred in Calanda, and probably in many other villages as well, began with the anarchist order to go the main square, where the town crier blew his trumpet and announced: "From today on, it is decreed that there will be free love in Calanda." As you can imagine, the declaration was received with utter stupefaction, and the only consequence was that a few women were harassed in the streets. No one seemed to know what free love meant, and when the women refused to comply with the decree, the hecklers let them go on their way with no complaints. To jump from the perfect rigidity of Catholicism to something called free love was no easy feat; the entire town was in a state of total confusion. In order to restore order, in people's minds more than anywhere else, Mantecon, the governor of Aragon, made an extemporaneous speech one day from the balcony of our house in which he declared that free love was an absurdity and that we had other, more serious things to think about, like a civil war...
In 1936, the voices of the Spanish people were heard for the first time in their history; and, instinctively, the first thing they attacked was the Church, followed by the great landowners--their two ancient enemies. As they burned chuches and convents and massacred priests, any doubts anyone mayhave had about hereditary enemies vanished completely.
My second American film, The Young One... One of the problems with The Young One was its anti-Manichean stance, which was an anomaly at the time, although today it's all the rage. Without quite knowing what it is, the fledgling writer in his first youthful effort is sure to warn us of the dangers of dividing things too clearly into black and white. In fact, the fashion for gray zones is so widespread that I've often dreamed of declaring myself an out-and-out Manichean and acting accordingly. In any case, once upon a time, the movies reflected the prevailing morality very closely; there were the good guys and the bad guys, and there was no question about which was which. The Young One tried to turn the old stereotypes inside out; the black man in the movie was both good and bad, as was the white man.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 26:
While still very young, I developed a taste for guns. At fourteen, I somehow managed to get hold of a small Browning that I carried around with me secretly.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 209-210:
There is a peculiar relationship between Mexicans and their guns. One day I saw the director Chano Urueta on the set directing a scene with a Colt .45 in his belt.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 226:
"You never know what might happen," he replied casually, when I asked him why he needed a gun in the studio.
On another occasion, when the union demanded that the music for Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz) be taped, thirty musicians arrived at the studio one very hot day, and when they took off their jackets, fully three quarters of them were wearing guns in shoulder holsters.
The writer Alfonso Reyes also told me about the time, in the early 1920s, that he went to see Vasconcelos, then the secretary of public education, for a meeting about Mexican traditions.
"Except for you and me," Reyes told him, "everyone here seems to be wearing a gun!"
"Speak for yourself," Vasconcelos replied calmly, opening his jacket to reveal a Colt .45.
This "gun cult" in Mexico has innumerable adherents, including the great Diego Rivera, whom I remember taking out his pistol one day and idly sniping at passing trucks. There was also the director Emilio "Indio" Fernandez, who made Maria Candelaria and La perla, and who wound up in prison because of his addiction to the Colt .45. It seems that when he returned from the Cannes Festival, where one of his films had won the prize for best cinematography, he agreed to see some reporters in his villa in Mexico City. As they sat around talking about the ceremony, Fernandez suddenly began insisting that instead of the cinematography award, it had really been the prize for best direction. When the newspapermen protested, Fernandez leapt to his feet and shouted he'd show them the papers to prove it. The minute he left, one of the reporters suspected he'd gone to get not the papers, but a revolver--and all of them took to their heels just as Fernandez began firing from a second-story window. (One was even wounded in the chest.)
[Benuel shares more stories about the Mexican "gun cult."]
And there's my lifelong love of firearms, most of which I sold in 1964, the year I was convinced I was going to die. I've practiced shooting in all sorts of places, including my office, where I fire at a metal box on the bookshelf opposite my desk. My specialty is the fast draw, like the hero in western movies who walks straight ahead, then spins suddenly on his heel and fires.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 215-216:
Nazarin, adapted from a novel by Galdos, was made in 1958 in Mexico City and in some lovely villages in the region of Cuautla. I remember Gabriel Figueroa setting up an aesthetically perfect frame with Popocatepetl in the background, crowned with its habitual white cloud, but instead of proceeding I turned the camera around to focus on a thoroughly banal scene that seemed far more appropriate to me. I confess that I have no patience with prefabricated cinematographic beauty, since all it really does is distract the spectator from what the film is trying to say. The essence of Nazarin, as a character, remains true to the novel, but I did modify some of Galdos's antiquated ideas so that they would at least appear to be more timely. At the end of the book, for example, Nazarin dreams that he's celebrating a Mass, but in the film the dream is replaced by the alms scene. I also slipped in a few new elements--the strike, for instance, and the dying woman in the plague scene, which was inspired by de Sade's Dialogue entre un pretre et un moribond, where a dying woman cries out for her lover and refuses God.
Baxter, page 249:
Of all the films I made in Mexico, Nazarin is one of my favorites. Despite the misunderstandings about its real subject, it was reasonbly successful. At the Cannes Festival, however, where it won the Grand Prix International, it almost received the Prix de l'Office Catholique as well. Three members of the jury argued passionately for it, but, happily, they were in the minority. Also, Jacques Prevert, an adamant anticleric, regretted that I'd given a priest the leading role. "It's ridiculous to worry about their problems," he told me, believing as he did that all priests were thoroughly reprehensible.
This misunderstanding, which some people referred to as my, "attempt at personal rehabilitation," went on for quite some time. After the election of Pope John XXIII, I was actually invited to New York, where the abominable Spellman's successor, Cardinal Some-body-or-Other, wanted to give me an award for the film.
Nazarin was finished at the end of 1958 but Barbachano Ponce, aware he had a controversy on his hands, dragged his feet about releasing it. The film did not show publicly until June 1959. Meanwhile, John Huston, who was shooting The Unforgiven in Durango, was so impressed that he spent a morning ringing Europe, arranging its showing at the 1959 Cannes Festival. To independents like Huston who had fought Hollywood for decades and mostly lost, Bunuel was a touchstone, an emblem of independence, and proof that personal cinema could exist. 'You can [. . .] say he likes feet and all that,' Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich. 'Jesus, it's all true. He's that kind of intellectual and that kind of Catholic [. . .] A superb kind of person he must be. Everybody loves him.'
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 217-219:
When the surrealist movement was in full flower, we made very clear distinctions between good and evil, justice and discrimination, the beautiful and the ugly. We also had certain unwritten laws--books that had co be read, others that shouldn't be read; things that needed to be done, others to avoid at all cost. Inspired by these old games, I've decided to let my pen wander as it will in this chapter, while I engage in the healthy exercise of listing some of my passions and my beces noires.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 228-230:
I loved, for example, Fabre's Souvenirs entomologiques, which I found infinitely superior co the Bible when it comes to a passion for observation and a boundless love of living things. I used to say that this was the only book I'd take with me if I were exiled to a desert island, although today I've changed my mind and wouldn't take any book at all.
I also loved de Sade. I was about twenty-five when I read The 120 Days of Sodom for the first time, and I must admit I found it far more shocking than Darwin. One day, when I was visiting Roland Tual, I saw a priceless copy in his library that had originally belonged to Marcel Proust. Despite its rarity, Tual lent it to me. It was a revelation. Up until then, I'd known nothing of de Sade, although the professors at the University of Madrid prided themselves on the fact that they never hid anything from their students. We read Dante, Camoens, Homer, Cervantes, so how was it that I knew nothing about this systematic and magistral exploration of society, this proposal for such a sweeping annihilation of culture? When I could bring myself to admit that the university had lied, I found that next to de Sade, all other masterpieces paled. I tried to reread The Divine Comedy, but now it seemed even less poetic than the Bible. And as for Camons's Lusiads and Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, the less said the better. Why hadn't someone made me read de Sade instead of all these other useless things?
When I tried to get hold of de Sade's other books, however, I found they had all been rigorously censored and were available only in very rare eighteenth-century editions. Brecon and Eluard, both of whom owned copies, took me to a bookstore on the rue Bonaparte where I put my name on a waiting list for Justine (which never arrived). And speaking of Justine, when Rene Crevel committed suicide, Dali was the first to arrive at his apartment. In the chaos that followed, a woman friend of Crevel's from London noticed that his copy of Justine had vanished. Someone had obviously swiped it--Dali? Impossible. Brecon? Absurd; he already had one. Yet it must have been one of Crevel's close friends, someone who knew his library well.
I also remember being struck by de Sade's will, in which he asked that his ashes be scattered to the four corners of the earth in the hope that humankind would forget both his writings and his name. I'd like to be able to make that demand; commemorative ceremonies are not only false but dangerous, as are all statues of famous men. Long live forgetfulness, I've always said--the only dignity I see is in oblivion.
If today my interest in de Sade has waned somewhat--after all, passion is an ephemeral thing--I'm still profoundly impressed by his recipe for cultural revolution. His ideas have influenced me in many ways, particularly in L'Age d'or. Maurice Heine once wrote a devastating critique in which he declared that de Sade would roll over in his grave if he knew what I'd done with his ideas; my only response was that my motivation was not to eulogize a dead writer, but to make a movie.
Similarly, seers, prophets and psychics bore and frighten me. (I'm a fanatical antifanatic.) For that matter, I don't like psychology in general. Or analysis. Or psychoanalysis. I have some close analyst friends who've written about my films, which is their prerogative, of courrse; but most of what they say makes no sense to me. On the other hand, my discovery of Freud, and particulary his theory of the unconscious, was crucial to me. Yet just as psychology seems a somewhat arbitrary discipline, forever contradicted by human behavior, so is psychoanalysis severely limited, a form of therapy reserved for the upper classes. During the Second World War, when I was working at the Museum of Modern Art, I thought about making a movie on schizophrenia which would explore its origins, the patterns of its development, and the various treatments then used to cope with it.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, pages 244-245:
"There's a first-rate psychoanalytic institute in Chicago," someone told me when I mentioned the idea. "Run by someone named Alexander, one of Freud's disciples. Why not go out there and talk to him about it?"
Which is exactly what I did. Once there, I found my way to the institute, which filled several luxurious floors of a large building.
"Our subsidy runs out this year," the famous Dr. Alexander informed me, "and believe me, we're ready to do just about anything to get it renewed. Your project sounds very interesting. Allow me to place our library and our doctors at your disposal for whatever help you might need."
I remember that when Jung had seen Un Chien andalou, he'd called it a fine example of dementia praecox, which when I suggested that Alexander might like a copy of the film, he professed to be delighted.
On my way to their library, however, I accidentally walked into the wrong room and had just enough time to see an elegant lady lying on a couch, obviously in the middle of a session, before the irate doctor rushed to slam the door (which, I assure you, I was trying to close as fast as I could). Later, I was told that only millionaires and their wives came to the institute. It was common knowledge, for example, that if one of these women was caught slipping a few extra bills into her purse in a bank, the teller would say nothing, the husband would be discreetly informed, and the wife sent to an analyst.
After I'd returned to New York, a letter arrived from Dr. Alexander, telling me he'd seen the film and, as he put it, "was scared to death." It goes without saying that he wanted nothing further to do with me. I found hs reaction incredible--what kind of a doctor would use that sort of language? Would you tell your life story to a pschologist who was "scared to death" by a movie? How could anyone take this man seriously?
Needless to say, I never made my schizophrenic movie.
The idea of making a film about Christian heresies first came to me just after my arrival in Mexico, when I read Menendez Pelayo's Historia de los heterodoxos espanoles. Its accounts of martyred heretics fascinated me--these men who were as convinced of their truths as the orthodox Christians were of theirs. In fact, what's always intrigued me about the behavior of heretics is not only their strange inventiveness, but their certainty that they possess the absolute truth. As Breton once wrote, despite his aversion to religion, the surrealists had "certain points of contact" with the heretics.
Baxter, pages 287-288:
Everything in The Milky Way is based on authentic historical documents. The archbishop whose corpse is exhumed and publicly burned (when personal papers tinged with heretical ideas are found after his death) was in fact a real Archbishop Carranza of Toledo. We did a great deal of research for this film, primarily in Abbe Pluquet's Dictionnaire des heresies. Carriere and I wrote the first draft in the fall of 1967 at the Parador Cazoria in the Andalusian mountains, where the road ended at the door of our hotel and where the few hunters around left at dawn and returned at nightfall, bringing back the occasional corpse of an ibex. We spent days discussing the Holy Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, and the mysteries of the Virgin Mary, and we were both happily surprised when Silberman agreed to the project. The script was finished at San Jose Purua during February and March 1968, and although filming was temporarily delayed by the commotion of that May, we finished the shoot in Paris during the summer. Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff played the two pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela who meet, on their way, a series of characters from all ages and places representing the principle heresies of our culture. The title comes from the idea of the original name of the Milky Way--Saint John's Way, so called because it directed wayfarers from all over northern Europe to Spain.
Once again, I worked with Pierre Clementi, Julien Bertheau, Claudio Brook, and Michel Piccoli, but I also discovered Delphine Seyrig, whom I'd bounced on my knee when she was a little girl in New York during the war. And for the second and last time I also put Christ himself, played by Bernard Verley, on camera. I wanted to show him as an ordinary man, laughing, running, mistaking his way, preparing to shave--to show, in other words, all those aspects so completely alien to our traditional iconography. It seemed to me that in the evolution of contemporary religion, Christ occupies a disproportionately privileged place in relation to the two other figures in the Holy Trinity. God the Father still exists, of course, but he's become vague and distant; and as for the unfortunate Holy Ghost, no one bothers with him at all anymore. He must be begging at roadsides by now.
Despite the difficulty of the subject, the public seemed to like the film, thanks largely to Silberman's superlative public relations work. Like Nazarin, however, it provoked conflicting reactions. Carlos Fuentes saw it as an antireligious war movie, while Julio Cortazar went so far as to suggest that the Vatican must have put up the money for it. These arguments over intention leave me finally indifferent, since in my opinion The Milky Way is neither for nor against anything at all. Besides the situation itself and the authentic doctrinal dispute it evokes, the film is above all a journey through fanaticism, where each person obstinately clings to his own particle of truth, ready if need be to kill or to die for it. The road traveled by the two pilgrims can represent, finally, any political or even aesthetic ideology.
At school and in the Residencia Luis had been as titillated as anyone by the contrast between the plaster iamges of Christ, Mary and the saints, and the physical functions they must have shared with ordinary men and women... It was a short step from this to pointing out the absurdity of much Catholic dogma. Bunuel had been amused by the interminable internecine war fought by the Church against heresy. Every few generations, some ingenious sceptic seized on an improbability of Church teaching and, in suggesting an alternative, attracted followers but also, inevitably, the wrath of Rome.
From: James Riordan, Stone: The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker, Hyperion: New York, NY (1995), pages 518-523:
From the early 1960s he had toyed with turning this recital of scepticism into a film and, in the process, affirming a lifetime's atheism. Silberman was willing to finance it... Winnowing Church histories, they compiled a list of apostasies and their repression, as grisly as it was comic. Most heresies, they found, sprang from six areas of doubt.
(1) The double nature of Christ. Was he God or man? God and man? God pretending to be man? Man pretending to be God? (2) The Trinity; how can three natures co-exist in the same entity? (3) The Immaculate Conception. Mary, a virgin, was nevertheless Christ's mother. (4) Transubstantiation. Can bread literally become the body of Christ? Is this just a metaphor? (5) The problem of God's omnipotence (whcih Sade propounded and Bunuel restated in The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe). Is God all-powerful? If so, do we enjoy free will? (6) Evil. Did God create evil? Does its co-existence with good prove that the Devil can also create?
The list suggested no obvious structure, so they simply dramatized incidents illustrating the heresies, linking them with a pair of wandering modern pilgrims. From childhood holidays at Santander and San Sebastian, Bunuel remembered the traditionof a pilgrimage to the shrine of St James of Compostela at Santiago in the same far northwestern corner of Spain... The route from northern Europe was known as the Milky Way, because in AD 813 a hermit was supposed to have followed that field of stars... to the body of St James... hidden there for centuries. The fact that James, who reputedly hacked off the heads of 10,000 Muslims, had been a favourite saint of the Falange also appealed to Bunuel. His vision of the Church undermined by its own internal disagreements would stand as a metaphor for the enfeebled Franco regime. Theer were resonances, too, with Surrealism, and Breton's habit of purging anyon who defied him.
[This film became La Voie lactee (a.k.a. The Milky Way; 1969).]
Luis Bunuel was one of the most experimental and anarchistic filmmakers in history... He often uses sexual pathology to discredit what he sees as the bourgeois Christian culture, and considers such extremes as sadomasochism, fetishism, necrophilia, cannibalism, and bestiality all part of the mass psychosis of Western civilization... It was Bunuel himself who, when asked if he had ever been religious, replied, "I have always been an atheist, thank God."
About Bunuel's film The Milky Way, from Baxter, pages 290-291:
As the two shabby pilgrims (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff) panhandle and hitch-hike along the freeways and back-roads of France and Spain en route to Santiago, the history of Catholicism unrolls behind them like a comic strip, surrealistically switching subjects from panel to panel. Occasionally they enter the action but more often they stare with dazed amusement while 2000 years of self-delusion, self-deception, nitpicking and hair-splitting ripple and flutter around them like a gaudy cyclorama.
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel, page 250:
Bunuel skates the line between farce and horror with effortless skill. A restaurateur discussing transubstantiarion with a passing priest suggests that the change from bread into flesh can be explained by comparison with a hare pate, both hare and pate at the same time, only to hear chillingly that the Pateliers were burned for this grievous error, just as Albigensians and Calvinists were slaughtered for suggesting that the bread was a metaphor for Christ's body rather than the thing itself.
Bunuel finds it both appalling and comic that men should be condemned simply for pointing out that Purgatory, Confirmation and Extreme Unction were later embellishments of the Church, never mentioned by Christ. His heretics in general blaze as beacons of logic in a fog of sophistry.
He often seems more disapproving of the pious laity than the Church. Claudio Brook incinerating the corpse of a colleague retrospectively condemned for heresy has more dignity than the modern-day maitre d' of a smart restaurant who leaves off lecturing his staff on apologetics to send the pilgrims packing without even a piece of bread. Interrupted by clients, he politely explains that they have been discussing why, with so many religious demagogues abroad in first-century Palestine, Christ alone should be remembered. 'Well, because he was Christ, of course,' the woman replies. 'Quite so, madame,' says the maitre d'. 'Some nice fresh oysters to start?'
The effrontery of the Church's confidence trick earns Bunuel's grudging admiration. Watching a more thoughtful monk faced down by his superior for daring to suggest that it is pointless to burn heretics, we recognize that, in the same situation, we would probably bow our heads as well. And perhaps so monstrous a lie as that of the Church achieves in the end something like the dignity of truth. Bunuel gives to a minor character a line that might almost be his: 'My hatred of science and my horror of technology will finally bring me round to this absurd belief in God.' In The Milky Way, what Pauline Kael calls Bunuel's 'Spanish schoolboy's view of life joined to an adult atheist's disbelief in redemption' is clearly on display.
Despite the commercial success of Belle de Jour, distributors did not stampede to screen The Milky Way. Those to whom Silberman showed it told him that the most they could hope for was 50,000 admissions in Paris and almost none elsewhere. He finally found a supporter in Boris Gourevitch, who owned a small chain of nine cinemas, one of them a porno house just off the Champs-Elysees. 'I don't understand any of it,' Gourevitch said of the film, 'but it's very beautiful. I'm going to help you.' He converted his porn cinema, changed its facade and opened the film there in March 1969 for a highly successful run. 210,000 people finally saw The Milky Way in Paris alone.
To Bunuel's embarrassment. The Milky Way was well received by the Church, sections of which were thawing in the liberalism of the Second Vatican Council. Rome even took in good part the fake execution of a recognizable Pope John Paul by Spanish anarchists, and when the Italian censor banned the film it intervened to reverse the decision. Despite protests from a few priest critics, the Spanish government also refused to ban it. The Festival of Cinema of Religious and Human Values in Valladolid invited the film, and the US National Catholic Film Office belatedly gave Nazarin an award as well. Embarrassed, Bunuel refused to attend the American ceremony and made much of the fact that he had also been presented with the prize of the Chevalier de la Barre, named in honour of an atheist precursor of Sade, but his stock among his free-thinking friends took a battering. After a Paris screening of The Milky Way for Fuentes, Cortazar, and Hernando and Loulou Vines, Cortazar pointedly left without anything more than polite thanks. Later, he told Fuentes that he believed Vatican money had gone into the film. Bunuel laughed at this, but he must have realized at last the truth of Breton's jaded remark: you really couldn't scandalize people any more, not even the Church.
There was worse to come. Having been accepted by the Church, Bunuel was now welcomed back by Spain. While he was spending Christmas with his family in Mexico City, the principals of Epoca, the small company that had advanced him 30,000 dollars for Tristana, turned up with the news that they now believed it could be relaunched. Bunuel put on a cantankerous show. He was far more interested in The Monk, he told them, for which he and Carriere had written a screenplay. Silberman was now ready to finance it, and they even had the cast lined up: Jeanne Moreau, Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif. To revive Tristana, he would need to look at the script again and almost certainly revise it. 'Why more films?' he demanded rhetorically. 'There are enough already.' Besides, he went on, they were 'as big a nuisance to make as they are to see'.
...the adaptation of Pierre Louys's La Femme et le pantin, which in 1977 became [Bunuel's film] That Obscure Object of Desire, starring Fernando Rey... Ironically, a bomb exploded on October 16, 1977, in the Ridge Theatre in San Francisco, where the movie was being shown; and during the confusion that followed, four reels were stolen and the walls covered with graffiti like "This time you've gone too far!" There was some evidence to suggest that the attack was engineered by a group of homosexuals, and although those of this persuasion didn't much like the film, I've never been able to figure out why.
Baxter, page 24:
Bunuel always believed he had the power to hypnotize women, to read and influence their minds. Simply by willing it, he could draw a woman to his table or reel off the most private details about her.
Baxter, page 173:
Under 'MY PRESENT PLANS' [Bunuel] wrote: 'I should like the making of documentary films of a psychological nature', and outlined two subjects, The Primitive Man and Psycho-Pathology. These synopses are the first evidence that Surrealism, Communism, the Civil War and perhaps, too, the enforced leisure of California and that state's famous acceptance of eccentricity had fundamentally changed Bunuel's point of view.
Baxter, pages 238-239:
...People no longer seemed quirky and individual but almost absurdly predictable. In The Primitive Man Bunuel argues that our higher impulses -- religion, love, patriotism -- can be traced back to the moments when man discovered language and fire. The film would show 'the terrible struggle of primitive man against a hostile universe, how the world appeared, how they saw it, what ideas they had on love, on death, on fraternity, how and why religion is born.'
If Communism had not changed with the post-war world, neither had Surrealism. Most of the pre-war brotherhood were purged or dead. Breton's 1950 Almanach Surrealiste du Demi-Siecle included work by only one other pre-war member, the undeviatingly strict Peret, with a few De Chirico and Ernst illustrations, though Ernst too would be purged in 1955, dismissed by Breton as 'a money-grubbing art dealer', like Dali, for winning the Venice Biennale.
Baxter, pages 258-259:
When Bunuel called on Breton, he found him preoccupied with doctrinal squabbles and his credentials as a pioneer. Dalis' exploitation of Surrealism's decorative and playful aspects at the expense of the political and literary meant that the world regarded him and not Breton as the true pop of Surrealism. Worse, Dali had just announced his conversion to Catholicism, promising, 'My painting in future will be an amalgam of my Surrealist experience and the classicism of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Renaissance.'
In the lithograph Sometimes I Spit for Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother, Dali had painted the words of the title over an outline of the Christ of the Sacred Heart. For the Almanach, Breton reproduced the picture with the addition of a newspaper report of Dali's conversion, and called the piece L'Amalgame. An apostasy [from Surrealism] that would once have stirred him to a furious pamphlet provoked no more than this amused shrug. As he lamented to Luis in 1955, 'It's sad, but it's no longer possible to scandalize anybody.'
Bunuel believed no such thing. It was not he who had abandoned Surrealist principles but Breton, and thereafter he regarded himself as pursuing a private Surrealist agenda. 'Having talked for hours and hours about Surrealism with Luis [Bunuel],' said Jean-Claude Carriere, '[I believe that] the real desire [of the movement] was not aesthetical but social; revolutionary. It was a revolutionary movement. They were young -- we must not forget that -- and they really wanted to change the world, using scandal, provocation, poetry, dark explorations of the mind as weapons. Of course it was a chimera. It was a Utopia but that was the point. Of course they were artists; they were writers; they were photographers, printers, film-makers so they used the weapons they had, but basically what they shared at the beginning was that deep desire to change a world they couldn't stand after the First World War and the massacre of that war. And the reason why they separated, why they got so much divided was because of the faithfulness or not to this primitive desire.'
To that ideal Bunuel would be rigorously faithful. The failure to achieve it, and the decline of Surrealism into the decorative cliches of Magritte wall-paper and Dali dream sequences depressed him. 'Very much later, in the seventies,' Carriere recalled, 'I said to Bunuel: "Could we say that Surrealism has failed in the essential and succeeded in the superfluous and the secondary?" and he said "Yes".'
Bunuel first used the idea in the unproduced short, The Castaways of Calle Providencia, written with Alcoriza, though it could be traced back to L'Age d'Or, where a cart rumbles unremarked through a drawingroom soiree and a formal concert is enlivened (but not interrupted) by violent death and sexual delirium. Now he and Alcoriza fleshed it out into The Exterminating Angel.
Baxter, page 281:
The title is Jose Bergamin's. He mentioned it at a peña [pena] in Madrid during pre-production for Viridiana, and Luis liked it enough to buy it. Bergamin claimed the phrase was biblical, specifically from the Book of Revelations. Yet although that collection of visionary raving has no shortage of destroying, rampaging and warning angels, none is described as 'exterminating'.
Bunuel was indifferent to provenance. His Sadeian taste for the apocalypytic was tickled by the vision of an omnipotent power visiting death on mankind like a farmer spraying insecticide on locusts. Over the years he gave various other sources for the name: the motto of a Spanish religious group, the Mormons' Angel Moroni, and a Valdes Leal painting of an angel with a six-thronged whip scourging a penitent before the throne of God, an image Bunuel liked so much that it was used on the film's poster. In fact the quote is from 2 Samuel 24:16, where God sends an angel to punish David. 'And when the angel stretchd out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, it is enough.' The French Bible translates this as: 'L'Ange etendit sa main vers Jerusalem pour l'exterminer: mais Iohve se repentit du mal et dit a l'Ange exterminateur de la population: "Assez!"' Nobody has satisfactorily explained its relevance to the film. Raymond Dugnat's suggestion that the 'angel' is 'the spiritual climate of bourgeois confrontation, drawn to its (desired) conclusion of inner paralysis' is as good -- or as bad -- as any.
Middle age had moderated Bunuel's youthful sex drive. Carriere dismisses the idea that Luis might have persisted with his infidelities into middle age. 'I think he was unfaithful to his wife only twice, and very briefly. As far as I know, the story between Jeanne and Bunuel was a fantastic love story from the very beginning. A long one. Maybe Jeanne says now [Woman Without a Piano], half seriously, half jokingly, that he was brutal, but she would never have said the same when he was alive.
'They were all the time kissing each other; from time to time he would speak in a loud voice to her but I've been there hundreds of times eating with them in their house in Mexico and I loved her as my mother, and they were very well together, and making love until the last moment, as one of his sons told me. He was unfaithful, he told me, once or twice, briefly, with whores, but you can't call them . . . well, it doesn't count, you know. But he never had any other love story. Never. I was there all the time. We spent months and months together, and I never saw him with another woman. Months together, in Spain, in France, going to Venice . . . never, never.'
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