The Not-So-Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel

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Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

Buñuel's 'La Voie lactée' (The Milky Way), 1969

Blasphemy just ain't what it used to be. On television every week one WWF wrestler head-butts his opponents in the crotch and then makes the sign of the cross. "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" offers schtick featuring an actor dressed up as Jesus Christ. And the pint-sized, helium-voiced denizens of "South Park" frequently meet up with Christ himself, whether he be hosting a cable-access show or taking on the devil in a wrestling match. These days it seems that an artist/entertainer would have to go pretty far ("Piss Christ," anyone?) before he or she can actually outrage the majority of the zoned-out American public.

But it wasn't always that way. Back in 1930, a Spanish filmmaker living in France debuted his first solo feature, a dreamlike exercise in l'amour fou entitled "L'Age d'or" ("The Golden Age"). The film concludes with the introduction of a man described as "the leader and chief instigator" of a band of "fiends." As the gent steps out of his chateau, we're confronted with Jesus Christ. The bearded one then takes a young woman back into his lair, and screams are heard from behind the door. Cut to: a crucifix covered in women's scalps, THE END. Protests over this sequence, and the film in general, in local newspapers caused a group of fervent rightists to invade the theater showing it, where they sliced up the screen, attacked the audience physically, and destroyed the original Surrealist canvases adorning the theater's lobby. Others found the filmmaker's artistic act of provocation to be a work of genius: avowed fan Henry Miller proclaimed that "they should take Buñuel and crucify him, or at least burn him at the stake. He deserves the greatest reward that man can bestow upon man."

Luis Buñuel is currently the subject of a comprehensive two-month retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art in honor of the centennial of his birth. "Don Luis" was actually born in February of 1900, but the delay between the actual event and its celebration makes perfect sense, as there are few filmmakers who are as appropriate as this renegade stylist to lead moviegoers into the 21st century.

Several of today's most prominent filmmakers betray the influence of Buñuel. David Lynch's radically bizarre first feature, "Eraserhead," couldn't have existed without the example of Buñuel's rulebreaking Surrealist masterwork "Un Chien Andalou" (1929), directed with Salvador Dali. Pedro Almodovar's deliciously ripe melodramas contain numerous elements first found in Buñuel's Mexican work from the 1950s; in fact, key sequences from Buñuel's giddily psychotic "The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz" (1955) are incorporated into Almodovar's "Live Flesh" (1997). And former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam is a clear Buñuel acolyte — the opening sequence of his "Brazil" (1985) seemingly picking up on the imagery that ended Buñuel's final film, "That Obscure Object of Desire."

Unlike that of his successors, Bunuel's work transcends all genre classifications. He was a critic of social and religious mores, who is best known for what he grudgingly called his "obsessions." Objective parties might more appropriately call them fetishes, but Bunuel was quick to state for the record that these were not his own fetishes. In the delightful book "Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel," he notes that "I am attracted by foot fetishism as a picturesque and humorous element. Sexual perversion repulses me, but I can be attracted to it intellectually."

His protests to the contrary, one can see the same images appear again and again in his films, from "Chien andalou" to "That Obscure Object": insects; eyes being harmed; blind men as unscrupulous predators; sheep as serene creatures, roosters and hens as evil ones; and the most famous Buñuelian motif of all, erotically charged images of feet and shoes. Though he declared he maintained an emotional distance from the majority of his "obsessions," "Objects of Desire" does contain the admission that a personal fascination did indeed lie behind the inclusion in his films of various sequences showing the bared thighs of young women. More importantly, he never denied the personal nature of another of his obsessions, namely the use of religious icons and rituals as a vehicle for satire and political statement.

Raised Catholic, Buñuel had a religious training that formulated his later, jaded worldview. One childhood game found him entertaining his sisters by pretending to be a priest saying mass; an early sexual experience occurred when he began to study under the Jesuits, who, he revealed to one interviewer, would attempt to channel young boys' sexual urges by encouraging them to masturbate to a statue of the Blessed Mother. Years later, while living at a now-famed students' residence in Madrid (where he first encountered Federico Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali), Buñuel took his childhood game a step further by wandering the streets dressed as a priest.

A photo from this era shows Buñuel in full nun-drag — making it no surprise that early on in "Chien andalou" (after the infamous eyeball- slitting scene, featuring Buñuel himself) our hero is seen bicycling through the streets wearing nun-like apparel. Later on, as the hero attempts to sexually attack the heroine, he is required to pull ropes connected to a variety of weighty impediments — including two reclining Marist brothers (one of whom is purportedly Dali). "L'Age d'or" followed soon after, but Buñuel was not able to return to his trademark imagery until the 1950s, as the political climate in the countries he inhabited (Spain and America) made it impossible for him to work again on a personal project. In 1946, Buñuel moved to Mexico, where his work on pedestrian comedies and the great success of his gritty, yet still dreamlike, juvenile delinquent saga "Los Olvidados" (1950) made him a bankable commodity. He proceeded to make a series of torrid melodramas and light comedies that pleased his studio bosses and also allowed him to indulge his sacrilegious imagination.

The Christian images he first used in his Mexican films were, he claimed, all based in reality. Thus we see a shrine to the Virgin in a slaughterhouse ("El Bruto," 1952), a bloody statue of Jesus carried onto a bustling streetcar ("Illusion Travels by Streetcar," 1953), and a man viewing a priest's ritual cleaning and kissing of altar boys' feet leading to sexually charged stares between the man and the woman who will become his beloved ("El/This Strange Passion," 1952). The coup de grace is delivered in "Archibaldo de la Cruz" when our hero, an aspiring (but terribly clumsy) serial killer, frightens a nun so badly she plunges down a deep elevator shaft — producing, in most cinemas, a hearty round of laughter.

Buñuel reached the height of blasphemy in 1961 when he returned to Spain to make "Viridiana," a film that was instantly repudiated by the Franco government — right after it had won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A biting social satire about a novice (Silvia Pinal) who visits her lecherous uncle's estate before taking her final vows, the film is rife with blasphemous images: a cross that doubles as a pocketknife, a cross of thorns being tossed on a blazing fire, a group of mangy beggars assembling into a "Last Supper" tableau vivant. The Spanish government banned the film, but it was a worldwide success and reestablished Bunuel in the front rank of international filmmakers — and sacrilegious troublemakers.

The last two must-see religious-themed Buñuel films draw their plotlines from actual historical events. "Simon of the Desert" (1965) is a low-budget production about a holy man who lives in a remote part of the desert, perched on a high pillar. The devil comes to tempt Simon, in the form of a sexy young woman (Silvia Pinal); for her final act, she shows this ascetic a vision of a modern day "black mass," taking him inside a noisy, sweaty, rockin' 1960s discotheque! "The Milky Way," Bunuel's final statement on Catholicism, is an episodic exploration of noted historical heretics, including Buñuel's professed "master," the Marquis de Sade (Michel Piccoli). Two pilgrims en route to a Spanish shrine travel from era to era, and also have "visions" (including one of a jovial, chuckling Christ chiding his stern Apostles) as they try to sort out what, if any, of the things they're hearing are true.

It's important to note that the film that probably best illustrates Buñuel's feelings about Christianity is also one of his most sober-minded, the Mexican production "Nazarin" (1958). Hailed by Christian critics as well as Buñuel's usual contingent of nonconformist fans, the film concerns a small-town priest whose attempts to dispense real Christian charity result in derision, poverty, exile and arrest. "Nazarin" demonstrates the essential difference between Buñuel's brand of blasphemy and that currently practiced in American pop culture: Buñuel's gags and images contain a strong sense of outrage. Even though he lost his faith in his teens, Buñuel continued to count among his closest friends a number of liberal-minded priests and monks. He also remained fascinated by church history and ceremony long after he became one of the most famous atheists of all time. His thorough knowledge of the institution he personally refuted and took great delight in mocking established him as that most dangerous of heretics, a blasphemer with a purpose. Though many of his most noted works shine a spotlight on the hypocrisy of organized religion, he balanced this viewpoint with the acknowledgment, in "Nazarin" and "Viridiana," that the principles of Christian charity are noble and laudable, although sadly unworkable in modern society.

Buñuel was more comfortable talking about his atheism in interviews than he was exploring the mysteries of his films. He was so adamant about his position that he boasted of a spiteful prank he hoped to pull on his "atheist, communist" friends. When he knew he was about die, he stated "I will call a priest, confess loudly, accuse myself of everything, say I believe in God and tell them to take my death as an example. 'You've shared my sinister beliefs,' [I'll tell them,] 'look at how I die.' And then I'll die and go straight to hell." The likelihood is that, if there is an afterlife, Don Luis is sharing a few carefully made martinis (his specialty) with Fellini, Kurosawa and his first cinematic hero, Fritz Lang. If not, well, he did always proclaim to anyone who would listen, "I am a Catholic and an atheist, thank God."

The majority of Buñuel's films have been released on home video, with some titles unfortunately going in and out of distribution; for a reliable list, try Movies Unlimited. The best books about Bunuel are the aforementioned "Objects of Desire" and "Luis Buñuel: A Critical Biography." Buñuel's own writings can be found in "An Unspeakable Betrayal" and his autobiography (largely ghostwritten by his frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere), "My Last Sigh."