Luis Bunuel’s Quarrel With the Church

A religious education and surrealism have marked me for life.”      ~Luis Bunuel

A man sharpens a razor and slits the eyeball of a young woman; a bomb, planted by the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, explodes in Paris. These two scenes—aiming at the jugular of the spectator—open in 1928 and close in 1977 the film career of Luis Bunuel, iconoclast supreme. The work of this Spanish director—32 films in 50 years—marks one of the most provocative uses of cinema to effect a mordant critique of social mores and conventions. Also, in his life and films, Bunuel never stopped wrestling with God and lashing at the Catholic Church. Even though he renounced Catholicism, it remained the hinge of his life and work.

Anticlerical and blasphemous in a Spanish way, Bunuel used to joke: “I’m an atheist, thank God.” But some of his later works seem to affirm Him by showing the failures of Christian figures, as in Nazarin (1959), Viridiana (1961), and Simon of the Desert (Simon del Desierto, 1965), or in discussing in an original way the dogmas of the Catholic Church, notably The Milky Way (La Voie Lacta, 1969). In its celebration of the centennial of cinema in 1995, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications included Nazarin—a bold choice—among the 15 films in world cinema praised for their religious values.

The philosophical dictum, “I am myself and my circumstance” (Yo soy yo y mi circumstancia), of Jose Ortega y Gasset, the formidable Spanish intellectual whom Bunuel met in Madrid in the 20s, is especially applicable to the filmmaker. It is impossible to understand Bunuel and his cinema without taking into account the circumstances of his life and background, such as his identity as a Spaniard, the Catholicism into which he was born, his crisis of faith in his early Youth, and his adoption of surrealism as a vehicle to channel his artistic impulses.

Early Influences

Bunuel was born in Calanda in the province of Teruel in the region of Aragon in Northeast Spain, on February 22, 1900. His father, Leonardo Bunuel, made a fortune in Cuba before the Spanish-American War and returned to his home village to marry Maria Portoles, a young woman of standing and property. They had a happy marriage blessed by seven children, of whom Luis was the oldest.

He received the religious and intellectual upbringing typical of the affluent and conservative upper class in the provincial capital of Zaragoza at the turn of the century. He was educated in a Jesuit school from 1907 to 1915, a complex experience that would mark him for life. His relationship with the Jesuits oscillated violently between love and reproach, gratitude and ferocious critique. Later, Bunuel’s films would reflect these ambivalent feelings.

He spent his university years in Madrid, where, besides earning a degree in history in 1924, he participated in the lively atmosphere of the Residencia de Estudiantes, a remarkable institution that gathered a number of painters, poets, artists, and intellectuals, later known as the Generation of 1927. Bunuel made formative friendships with Salvador Dali, Federico Garcia Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Ramon Gomez de la Serna, Damaso Alonso, and other notable figures who wanted to modernize Spanish culture.

In 1925, Bunuel moved to Paris, where he not only discovered his vocation as a filmmaker but also immersed himself in the cultural zeitgeist of the city, dada and surrealism. After an apprenticeship under director Jean Epstein and with funds from his mother and the collaboration of Dali, Bunuel made an experimental short, An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou, 1928). Its plot, which unfolded like a dream, excluded all narrative sense and avoided logical associations. It was intended to shock and still shocks today. In the film, a man played by Bunuel slits a woman’s eyeball (a dead calf was used); another man drags two Marist brothers, a piano, and a dead donkey with a rope; and ants crawl out of a hole in a hand. Two years later, with some involvement from Dali and financed by French aristocrats, patrons of the avant-garde art scene, Bunuel made the surrealist classic, The Golden Age (L’Age d’Or, 1930), a savage attack on middle-class morality, the Church, and the bourgeois establishment. It was a succes de scandale of epic proportions, which culminated with the banning of the film in France until the early 80s.

After visiting Hollywood for a few months—invited by a French MGM representative who thought the Spaniard’s iconoclastic furor could be harnessed to the studio system—Bunuel worked in Paris dubbing films for Paramount and in Madrid as executive producer of commercial pictures. In 1932, a year after the fall of the Spanish monarchy, Bunuel directed a landmark documentary, Land Without Bread (Las Hurdes, 1932), which the Republican government quickly banned. This sociopolitical documentary, played to the music of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, explores the horrific backwardness and subhuman living conditions of an isolated area in the mountains south of Salamanca. Part tragedy, part hallucination, this chronicle is another surrealist call against the established order, mainly the Church and private property. The images still haunt: a donkey killed by bees; hungry, sick, and dead children; and cretins as a result of inbreeding. An example of la Espana negra (the dark side of Spain), which was painted by Velazquez, Ribera, and Goya and described in picaresque novels, is Bunuel’s Land Without Bread. It introduced a recurring Bunuelian theme with eschatological implications: Material and moral poverty—indeed evil—cannot be redeemed, and human existence under these conditions is hell.

A Filmmaker Exiled

A supporter of the republic during the bloody Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, Bunuel worked in various propaganda capacities in Spain and France, as well as briefly in Hollywood as technical adviser on portrayals of the Republican cause. After the victory of the nationals and General Francisco Franco, Bunuel became a political exile. With his wife, Jeanne Rucar, and their two small children, he moved first to Los Angeles and then to New York, where between 1939 and 1943 the filmmaker was hired by the Museum of Modern Art to prepare propaganda films for the U.S. Allies.

Pressure resulting from the publication in 1942 of Dali’s self-serving autobiography, in which he denied his participation in The Golden Age and called Bunuel an atheist, forced the filmmaker to resign. Despite working again in Hollywood for two years dubbing and supervising foreign versions of American films for Warner Brothers, Bunuel not have any directorial opportunities. So in 1946 he accepted an offer to direct a film in Mexico—his first film in over a decade—and settled there until his death in 1983

After learning to adapt to the budget and time constraints of the Mexican film industry, Bunuel directed 20 of his 32 films. His is an interesting, varied, and immensely entertaining body of work, with a surrealist touch present even in the most hackneyed assignments. Bunuel’s pictures also develop the two themes of his first three experimental works: the clash between desire and social convention his subversive critique of the effects of family, culture, and state, and religion on an individual. These two themes are the basis for the psychological dramas This Strange Passion (El, 1952) and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ensayo de un crimen, 1955), studies of the abnormal sexual behavior of the Spanish hidalgo, or gentleman of Christian virtue.

Abismos de pasion (1953) surrealistically reworks Wuthering Heights, where sexual passion is laced with necrophilic longings and entomological pursuits. Mexican Bus Ride (Subida al Cielo, 1951) and The Illusion Travels by Streetcar (La illusion viaja en tranvia, 1953) are allegories about life, birth, love, and desire, unfolding in the enclosed traveling worlds of public transportation. The French-language co-productions Cela s’appelle l’aurore (1956), Death in this Garden (La Mort on ce Jardin, 1956), and Republic of Sin (La Fievre Monte a El Pao, 1960) constitute an underrated political tryptic about the moral choices of individuals living in right-wing authoritarian states, metaphors for the Franco regime and Latin American dictatorships. The targets are, unsurprisingly, the army, the police, the conniving bourgeoisie, and a Church that operates under the wings of the powerful.

Bunuel directed two U.S.-Mexican co-productions in English during this period: Robinson Crusoe (1952) and The Young One (1961). His touch is noticeable in the Defoe classic: a surrealistic dream sequence; metaphysical discussions between Crusoe and Friday about God, free will, and predestination; and the idea that God becomes a useless hypothesis when man is placed in extreme situations. In The Young One, the filmmaker shows another isolated world, centered on the relationship between a virginal adolescent brought up outside of conventional society and three men—a white bigoted gamekeeper, a fugitive black musician, and a reverend who means well but has no moral authority.

Three films were made with complete artistic freedom and stand out during the Mexican period: The Young and the Damned (Los Olvidados, 1950), Nazarin (1959), and The Exterminating Angel (El Angel Exterminador, 1962). They are vintage Bunuel in their view of the human condition, and the relationships among man God, and other men.

The Young and the Damned chronicles in documentary style a social and individual tragedy with a solution left to the “progressive forces of society,” says the opening narrator. The film is Land Without Bread transposed to the slums of Mexico City, where tough street children, growing without love and shelter, live and die without redemption. Unlike Shoeshine and other works of Italian neorealism that may have passing similarities with Bunuel’s film, The Young and the Damned does not vie for an emotional connection with the audience. It is a clinical look at the lumpen proletariat, cruel people hardened by a life in hell. It is in the tradition of the Spanish picaresque novel; the blind beggar in The Young and the Damned is a direct descendant of the blind man in the classic El Lazarillo de Tormes. Like in many other Bunuel films, the brutality of life is conveyed on a metaphorical level, with the use of insects and animals—in this case, hens, doves, dogs—to parallel human behavior. A vivid surrealistic dream sequence, where a boy striving to emerge from a sea of evil cannot get food or love from his mother, encapsulates the pessimism of the film. The Young and the Damned brought Bunuel back to the international film scene as an artistic force to reckon with.

Nazarin cannot be fully grasped without seeing that it is intended as a parallel to the life, passion, and death of Christ, minus the Resurrection. Based on a novel by Benito Perez Gald6s, Spain’s Dickens, the film traces the radical commitment with which Fr. Nazario, a priest played by Francisco Rabal, lives the Gospel. Nazario, a modern reincarnation of Don Quixote, wants to do good but fails egregiously. Similar to Cervantes’s novel, Nazarin charts not only the failure of a committed Christian to effect change in an imperfect world but also the priest’s disenchantment with these ideals. Or so it seems, because the ending is ambiguous enough to encompass the Vatican’s praise as well as film critics who note that the priest has actually lost his faith. Bunuel later addresses the collapse of faith in a religious figure—and its replacement by a sense of fraternal solidarity—in Viridiana and Simon of the Desert, two works with explicitly religious themes.

The Exterminating Angel—an ingenious reworking of The Golden Age using a circular plot structure—is a surrealist parable about the collapse of culture and ensuing descent into barbarism. For unknown reasons, a representative group of the Mexican upper class cannot leave the mansion where they have enjoyed a post-opera supper. Days go by, social conventions are shed, and civilized manners are replaced by bestial behavior. One day, however, the spell is inexplicably broken. But after a Te Deum in the cathedral, the guests find themselves unable to leave the building. In the closing shot, a flock of sheep stampedes into the church.

The Return to Spain

Thirty years after Land Without Bread, Bunuel returned to Franco’s Spain to make a film under the auspices of the Ministry of Information, whose censorship board approved the project. Viridiana tells the story of an innocent novice who leaves the convent before making her vows. Viridiana, like Nazario, wants to do good, and after the suicide of her uncle and tutor—an hidalgo who attempted to seduce her—she invites twelve beggars to share her country estate. But the beggars—ugly, evil people, blind men, lepers, and prostitutes—take over the house one day and rape Viridiana. To the sound of Handel’s Hallelujah, Bunuel stages an orgy that culminates around a dinner table, parodying Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Sobered by the futility of her work of mercy, Viridiana forgoes convent life and finds solace in the company of her cousin and his servant-lover. Like Nazario, and as ambiguously, she has abandoned her ideals. A work of maturity and rebellion against the Spain of Bunuel’s childhood and adolescence, Viridiana raised a storm when L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, denounced it as blasphemous.

Simon of the Desert is about the unproductive isolation of a fourth-century hermit saint, who lives on top of a column and is tested by the Devil in the shape of a seductive woman, with whom he goes to a New York discotheque. It was the director’s last Mexican picture, which was released unfinished for lack of funds.

New, Old Themes

Buriuel’s last seven films were made for a French producer, with great creative freedom. He continued dynamiting the world of his youth and its contemporary manifestations. Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d’une Femme de Chambre, 1964), with Jeanne Moreau, portrays a hypocritical French provincial milieu in the 1930s. Belle de Jour (1967), his greatest international success, is a merciless critique of upper-class alienation through his portrayal of a bored housewife, played by Catherine Deneuve, who can only get sexual satisfaction working afternoons as a prostitute. The thin line separating reality and fantasy, marked by the sound of bells, has completely disappeared by the end of the film—tricks of an old surrealist.

Tristana (1970), another devastating critique of Spanish provincial society in the 1930s, returns to the recurring Buriuelian situation of an older man—an hidalgo played by Fernando Rey—corrupting a young innocent woman (Catherine Deneuve) under his tutelage.

The Milky Way (1969), an original time-travel “road movie” of Spanish ancestry centered on the theological adventures of two present-day French pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, has elicited opposite reactions. For some, it is a profoundly religious film that invites the secular man to reflect about transcendence. For others, it is a surrealistic and subversive view of dogmas upheld by the Church and the heresies she has fought, like the dual nature of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, free will, and predestination.

The surrealist comedies The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, 1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (Le Phantome de la Liberte, 1974) are hilarious companion pieces that, like The Golden Age and The Exterminating Angel, satirize old Bunuel staples: bourgeois manners, the crushing of desire, and the absurdity of social conventions. The films are made up of unconventionally linked vignettes, including stories within stories, dreams, and fantasies, that culminate in the violent, metaphorical destruction of the bourgeois order.

In the ingenious That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet Obscur Objet du Desir, 1977), Bunuel illustrates for the last time Freud’s vexing question: What does the woman want? An aging Gallic hidalgo (Fernando Rey) becomes obsessed by an elusive Andalusian beauty, played by two very different actresses, the earthy Angela Molina and the icy Carole Bouquet. The film is a long flashback during which the jilted suitor tells his fellow train travelers the Bunuelian vicissitudes of the courtship.

The Church’s Influence

This study of Bunuel is part of the Crisis series on directors whose films reflect a Catholic understanding of the human condition. Filmmakers discussed so far are John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Borzage, Francis Coppola, and Wim Wenders. In spite of their differences in style and themes, these directors share a Catholic common ground to show how their characters deal with life on screen: The human drama is played out in terms of sin and redemption, evil and grace, love, and solidarity. Where does Bunuel, the fervent iconoclast, fit? What is the viewer to make of this will to destroy and liberate, at the heart of his work? How can the Christian believer engage in a dialogue with films that challenge his faith and posit the radical loneliness of man in an essentially evil world? In other words, how do we understand Bunuel?

The filmmaker’s autobiography, My Last Sigh (1982), written in collaboration with his longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, forms a point of departure, because Bunuel discusses quite candidly the main forces that shape his work: a life-long rebellion against the 19th-century Spanish bourgeoisie, early religious faith, eroticism and “a perfect conscience of death,” and the lasting effect of his crisis of faith.

The crisis of faith was perhaps unavoidable: Bunuel’s appetite for knowledge and experience could not be contained by an upbringing that seemed to distrust the profane world. This conflict is the primal situation reworked in Nazarin, Viridiana, and Simon of the Desert and to a lesser extent in Robinson Crusoe, Death in This Garden (Fr. Lizzardi), and Republic of Sin (Vazquez). In these films, a single-minded protagonist, physically or mentally outside of the world (the seculum), sees his ideals tested—with tragic results—when entering the world. The inner turmoil of the spiritual crisis is never revealed, only its devastating effects.

This traumatic crisis liquidated Bunuel’s belief in God and turned him into a militant atheist, with the combative zeal—ironically—of a disciple of St. Ignatius. The crisis also led to another paradox, duly noted by his biographer Francisco Aranda in Luis Bunuel: a Critical Biography (1985): Although the filmmaker abandoned Catholic theology and morality, he still operated from a Catholic mindset, albeit secularized. “I am not ‘one of the flock,’ but how can I deny that I have been marked culturally, spiritually, by the Catholic religion?” Bunuel told two Mexican film critics in a book-length interview, Objects of Desire (1992).

This paradox is reflected in Bunuel’s cinema, especially in the treatment of evil. His approach to evil and sin lacks the theological dimension found implicit, for example, in the work of Hitchcock and Ford. For both of them, there is a moral structure outside man’s desires, a universe disrupted by sin and redeemed by love. Bunuel’s is not an amoral universe. There is right and wrong, but evil is no mystery. It is just an anthropological given with social, not theological, consequences. Since there is no sin in a Christian sense—the breakup of man’s friendship with God—there is no need for redemption outside of man. “We have to look for God in man,” he commented to a French magazine before the filming of Viridiana.

The theological consequences of this turn from God to man are reflected in the Bunuelian universe. Faith, hope, and love—the three theological virtues—are laicized and shorn of the transcendental dimension they have, for example, in Ford and Wender’s later films. The dialectic of sin/redemption ceases to operate, and the notion that we are members of one body is replaced by that of the radical loneliness of each individual. In Bunuel’s films, theology becomes pure anthropology, and sin is a social contravention that can be expurged by dynamiting—guerrilla style— institutions like the Church that tell men they are more than human. In this sense, the incisive caricatures of unctuous, mundane, and greedy priests seek to uncover the hypocrisy of an institution, which, in his view, uses the Gospel to achieve a secular agenda. This type of priest—memorably crucified in El, Nazarin, and Tristana—is so recurrent that it must come from Bunuel’s own experience.

Manuel Alcala observes that even though the notions of hell and eternal damnation—which so fired the vivid imagination of young Bunuel—have also been stripped of any theological implication, they figure prominently in his cinema. What are Land Without Bread, The Young and the Damned, and The Exterminating Angel if not visual renderings of infernal situations, whose tragedy lies in their lack of hope?

The use of black humor and surrealist absurdity cannot temper the tone of restrained pessimism that pervades the sum of Bunuel’s work. Even the happy endings of minor films, like the Mexican comedies and melodramas, clamor for subversive readings. Love is mostly confined to an eroticism that can never be satisfied. There is no distinction between normal and abnormal forms of sexual love. Neither is matrimonial love a healing force. Paradoxically, a man with a long, stable marriage like the filmmaker’s has given the cinema a catalog of bizarre sexual behavior, which in part explains the popularity of his films to this day.

Bunuel’s work is that of a vehement guerrilla fighter, along the lines of an anticlericalism frozen in time, unable or unwilling to see the profound changes that took place in the Church during his lifetime. In the tradition of the Spanish moralist, Bufiuel sees that “we do not live in the best of worlds,” but he doesn’t know where a better one is or how to achieve it. In the process of bombing the Catholic Church, this militant nonbeliever has given us some very intensely religious films. A tout seigneur tout honneur.


  • Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz

    At the time this article was published, Maria Elena de las Carrerras Kuntz, a film critic from Argentina, was living in Northridge, California. She holds a Ph.D. in film and television studies from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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