Pornographer and Puritan (Buñuel and Sex)

I remember they used to speak about the three “Bs” in Spanish cinema, Buñuel, Bardem and Berlanga, although it could also be because of the “Bueno, bonito y barato” (“good, nice and cheap”) idea to which producers aspired at the time, after they did away with the large expenses of the big studios and the powerful national film industry, whose collapse we contributed to. Although some of us regretted the fact later, after our young blindness and enthusiasm died down, perhaps it was Buñuel who was the most conscious of the result of lacking the necessary means, after having been responsible for the buoyant, and later failed, Filmófono firm during the Republic and having been forced, later, to make films with small budgets abroad to survive. Imagination and genius always knew how to find unusual resources from the miserabilization of the environment, though.

I discovered Buñuel during the Spanish Civil War, in the middle of a tragic turbulent reality which took us back to the darkest and most grotesque Spain. I was a teenager who felt he was living a long holiday. The Government had moved to Valencia and cultural life with it. Without bombardments, our favourite refuge was bookshops. There, my passion for the decadent literature of the 19th century was shaken by the libertarian freshness of the French surrealists, as a discovery which stimulated the spirit of revolution a young man my age had in that turbulent period.

Fascinated by that subversion of the concepts, I had the chance to see “Un chien andalou” and “L’âge d’or”. Two films which were the deciding factor in discovering my vocation, which, until then, had been no more than slight attempts into painting and poetry. Although Eisenstein’s moral perfection caused more shock in me, the freedom of ideas which Buñuel’s films provided opened quite a wonderful universe for my imagination. Then, I thought they were Dalí’s ideas and that Buñuel had only provided the technical work to film them. It was later, when I saw “Land without Bread”, that I realized the true quality of the master.

In some conversations with José Bello, years later, I learned the importance his stay at the Student’s Hall had had for him, and the encounter with a generation of brilliant youngsters, with talent and a little crazy, whom the incomparable Pepín (this is my own opinion) illustrated and modelled, remodelling them to turn them into a group of geniuses.

Without such a catalyst coincidence, we would have met a Luis Buñuel, from Teruel, with a marked Jesuit education, which, by the way, he never managed to get rid of, despite his irreverent efforts, who was studying to become an industrial engineer and whose only hobbies were boxing and other rough sports.

Lorca taught him how to write and Dalí taught him how to dig among ghosts. He added his wild feelings and from there, there came the powerful strength of his films. That ability to expose the inner battles of the human spirit fighting against the burden of destructive educations. The strength of the wild subversion which exudes from a substantial modesty. Buñuel treated the eroticism by Dalí and by Bataille as a mysterious and uncontrollable power close to the idea of death, without ever being able to free himself of the idea of sin, which reinforced even more his blasphemous relationship. When he filmed “The Milky Way”, he even got awards from the Church. The thing is that, deep down, he never stopped being a deeply annoyed fundamental catholic. He was really angry when in one of those interviews in which you had to answer to a name or a concept automatically, which were so fashionable then, in the 70s, in Paris, when they said “Buñuel”, I said: “Pornographer”. It is a natural association of ideas which, when you think about it calmly, is always wrong, because deep down, rather than libertinism, he had something of an evangelist Puritanism.

In fact, I know that when they showed him “Last Tango in Paris”, followed by my film “Life Size”, he came out feeling shocked, without understanding them, although, in my case, I paid homage to what I think is by far one of the greatest masterpieces of the century, “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”, that essay about a crime as the sublimation of the deadly power of sexual passion transferred to an artificial representation of the loved one. Together with him, I think it is the most outstanding example of his cinema, although he always talked of his Mexican stay as a mere period of survival. Now, I remember I visited him in México, where he behaved as the perfect “cicerone”. We went to the prison to visit the Indian Fernández and he showed me his collection of pistols, as well as getting me into Dry Martiny, the only alcoholic drink he could stand, although at certain hours he would succumb to the “Buñueloni”, a cocktail he had made up himself, a sort of “Negroni” mixed his way, which I didn’t have the pleasure or the misfortune to ever want to try.

Recently, I have been shown a letter written to Ricardo Muñoz Suay in which he remembers those days pleasantly, and in which he asks him to say hello to the “right-winger” Berlanga. It was a time when we, excited, and fighting the Industry, created the production company called Uninci, with an infrastructure of a communist economic ideology which ended up leading us to ruin.

But at least, thanks to the ability and generous enthusiasm of an exceptional man like Gustavo Alatriste, “Viridiana” was filmed. Another masterpiece which won de Golden Palm in Cannes and which was forbidden by Franco’s regime because it was sacrilegious. It was a time in which we often met in Madrid and used to have dinner in the Asador de Fuencarral, which he loved, until we became estranged because he preferred the company of Paco Rabal, Carlos Saura, Muñoz Suay and other people who were closer to the Party.

His career in France, his final international explosion, seems less interesting to me. The complex Parisian eroticism Jean Claude Carrière (who used to argue with me over the way a woman should sit on a bidet) provided him with, lacked the intensity and the disruption that the scripts by Luis Alcoriza or Julio Alejandro could cause. However, there is nobody who cannot but give in before scenes from “Diary of a Chambermaid” or “Belle de Jour”. But, no matter how hard I tried, I have never been able to leave a mystery without explanation on a film, like the Chinese box which left Catherine Deneuve astonished. The thing is, especially in Buñuel’s case, that one has to take one’s hat off to the simple ability to exceed reason.

Luis García Berlanga

* “Buñuel, 100 años”. El Cultural. El Mundo, Madrid, 13 de febrero de 2000.