Bunuel: The cutting edge


In his lifetime, Luis Bunuel was called many things -- anarchist, atheist, revolutionary, iconoclast, anti-clericalist and pervert. There is no doubt he liked to shock. But Bunuel's horrors were the horrors of our society.

The critic-poet, who will be honored with a retrospective at this Berlin International Film Festival, used cinema as a weapon. And surrealism -- virtually absent from cinema since his death -- was his means of portraying the chaos, guilt, repression and suffering of Western civilization.

Bunuel warned us of his artistic demeanor from the moment when an impassive man -- Bunuel himself -- slit a woman's eyeball with a razor in the opening scene of his very first movie, "Un chien andalou."

Since that moment, his films have violated our comfortable view of reality.

Citing Fredrich Engels, Bunuel once set out the artistic aims that would govern his work: Through the surreal -- visualizing the impulses of the unconscious -- he would, he said, "shatter the optimism of the bourgeois world, and force the reader (or spectator) to question the permanency of the prevailing order."

His methods were to depict unconscious longing as reality and to show that repression -- be it sponsored by church, state or society in general -- will breed the very acts it presumes to prevent.

Bunuel is unusual among cinema's major artists in his casual regard for visual dazzle. Perhaps only Chaplin, among the greatest of the film directors, comes close to Bunuel's indifference to film language.

His films unfold in a straightforward manner. And yet monstrous things -- perverse and shocking things -- emerge as part of the quotidian. Bunuel worked in a variety of genres -- from the avant-garde and documentaries to the cheapie entertainment films for the Mexican masses, neo-realist social dramas and internationally acclaimed art films. And he suffered from a 15-year work interruption that would have destroyed the career of a lesser artist.

Born in Calandra, Spain, on Feb. 22, 1900, and educated among the Jesuits, Bunuel left his homeland in the late 1920s to join the surrealist revolution in Paris. "Our wish," he said, "was to honor the claims of the unconscious, and I suppose Freud was our patron saint." He made the silent film "Un chien andalou" in 1929 with childhood friend Salvador Dali, a 17-minute free association of images that includes such surrealist staples as ants crawling out of a hole in a man's hand and a man erasing his lips.

This year's Luis Bunuel Retrospective will commence and conclude at the Volksbuhne with two special presentations focusing on Bunuel's famous directorial debut: "Un chien andalou" is to be screened four times, and each time it will be accompanied live by different works of contemporary music.

His next film, "L'Age d'Or" (1930), began as another surrealist collaboration with Dali. The two men fell out early in production and Dali completely disowned the work.

After Bunuel's shocking -- and, in its own way, surreal -- documentary "Land Without Bread" (1932), a look at an impoverished, ignorant and in-bred rural pocket of Spain, Bunuel didn't direct again until he moved to Mexico in 1947 and began making potboilers. (One of best was "Illusion Travels by Streetcar" in 1953.)

But it was "Los Olvidados," greeted with fervor at Cannes in 1951, that re-established his name in world cinema. His brutally unsentimental view of a teen gang in a Mexico City slum won the director's award. Then "Viridiana" won the Palme d'Or in 1961. His best known is surely "Belle de Jour" (1967), a lovely film about bondage and subservience. His heroine, Severine (Catherine Deneuve), shares with the heroine in "Viridiana" a psychic disorder caused by guilt and repression of basic needs. Sexuality and defilement are linked in her mind, and sex is divorced from love. "The Milky Way" (1969) dramatizes the impossibility of Christian theory itself -- the doctrine that rest on irrational, irreconcilable mysteries.

The filmmaker once wrote: "The essential element in any work of art is mystery, and generally this is lacking in films. Authors, directors and producers take great pains not to disturb our peace of mind, and they keep the marvelous window of the screen closed to the liberating world of poetry."

Bunuel flung that window as wide open as any director in history.

In addition to Bunuel's 32 directorial works, the retrospective will present a program of eight films to introduce his contributions as assistant director, producer and screenwriter.