The Surreal Realism of Buñuel’s Mexican Films

The year 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of Surrealism, or at least the movement’s founding in Paris via two rival Surrealist manifestos. While the movement flourished in numerous international contexts, an exodus of artists from Europe during World War II shifted its center westward. Mexico — the country that André Breton himself called the most innately surreal in the world — became a new capital of Surrealism.

This is a particularly opportune moment, then, for the Museum of Modern Art to present Buñuel in Mexico, a major retrospective featuring 21 of the 22 films that the Spanish filmmaker made in Mexico between 1947 and 1965. Luis Buñuel was a (if not the) central filmmaker of Surrealism, a status earned by two films he worked on with Salvador Dalí: Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), both of which helped define the movement’s dreamlike, anti-logical approach to cinema. After the Spanish Civil War drove Buñuel from his native country, a fortuitous series of events led him to Mexico in 1946 to shoot the earliest film in MoMA’s program, Gran Casino (1947), a musical crime drama featuring two well-known performers. Although it was a box-office disaster, his career recovered, and he spent the rest of his life in Mexico; he became a citizen in 1949 and died there in 1983.

Unlike his better-known early Surrealist work, Buñuel’s Mexican films are easily recognizable as movies in the familiar sense — they follow a legible narrative and include clearly developed and often charismatic characters. His comeback film, El gran calavera (The Great Madcap) (1949), is a lightweight comedy that pokes fun at bourgeois laziness with its classic rich-and-poor-trade-places premise. While the filmmaker’s early French work had been shot in a scrappier, avant-garde mode (his own mother even financed Un Chien Andalou), this method of independent filmmaking simply didn’t exist in 1940s Mexico. Buñuel himself remarked that he “was still an apprentice in so-called ‘normal’ cinema” in the late 1940s, a time known as the “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,” with its centralized, nationalistic film production. While anyone who owned a tuxedo and knew Buñuel was allowed to appear in L’Age d’Or, his Mexican works profit from the use of professional, established stars of Latin American cinema.

But this commercial turn hardly betrayed his Surrealist origins. These films are rife with dream sequences, hallucinations, and interior moments that blur the line between imagination and reality. While adopting a gritty social documentary style to depict the ill-fated lives of the children in Mexico’s slums, Los olvidados (The Forgotten) (1950) features an unforgettable dream scene realized through dizzying double exposure and slow motion. Buñuel believed that such moments were necessary to achieve a true documentary style, as they reflect the fantastical, mysterious nature of everyday reality.

In line with the movement’s leftist politics — many of the Surrealism’s original members, Buñuel included, joined the Communist party by the early 1930s — Los olvidados issues a blistering critique of structural inequality. The film opens with narrated shots of Paris and London, stating that modern cities consign impoverished children to a life of crime through malnutrition and a lack of access to education. Mexico City, the narrator then asserts, is no exception to this rule; as scholar Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz argues, the film’s depiction of these children punctures the image of “virile mythological heroes” that Mexican national cinema sought to construct. As a result, the film faced immense criticism and censorship upon its release, not unlike Buñuel’s equally controversial Surrealist work. The film is widely considered one of Buñuel’s best — it even attained the curious status of being a UNESCO-registered “Memory of the World.”

Other classics in the program, like Él (This Strange Passion) (1953) and Nazarín (1959), echo the filmmaker’s earlier critiques of organized religion. In Él, a Hitchcockian drama, the female protagonist flees her abusive husband and seeks out the advice of a clergyman, only to discover that the husband’s wealth and influence had already swayed the priest against her. As the husband descends into madness, threatening his wife’s safety within the physical space of the Church, the film culminates in a sensational hallucination sequence during Mass. Nazarín, too, highlights the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, as its titular character marches through a blighted Mexican countryside, condemned to greater and greater suffering for his Christlike acts of charity and self-sacrifice. Even in his more “commercial” movies, the filmmaker never abandoned Surrealism’s leftist politics or its penchant for societal critique. And while it’s hardly radical to give Buñuel attention, this program is part of a wider project of accounting for the truly global history of art and cinema, particularly in the context of Surrealism. As the filmmaker himself demonstrates in the beginning of Los olvidados, there is far more to the world than Paris and London.

Buñuel in Mexico runs at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) from February 13–20. The film series was organized by Dave Kehr with Steve Macfarlane

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