From Madrid to Mexico – Buñuel: A Life In Exile

John Boyce looks at the republican struggle and exile of Spain´s greatest auteur, on the Forty year anniversary of his death.

It is often said that there is no war more bitter than one confined to national boundaries, pitting as they do, brother against brother. Given its overtly ideological nature, the Spanish civil war was certanly no exception. With liberal values and artistic freedom on the line, it was inevitable that creative types of all stripes, poets, writers, sculptors, painters, film directors, would overwhelmingly support the republic. The most prominent among them became high priority targets for the fascist forces, who feared their propaganda value to the other side.

Most infamous and tragic was the case of the Federico Garcia Lorca, staunch supporter of the republic, executed by the military less than a month after the outbreak of war. Many artists like him went into exile to escape a similar fate.

Perhaps the most high profile of these artists was Spanish auteur and giant of twentieth century cinema, Luis Buñuel. Originally from Zaragoza, Buñuel was raised in conservative, middle class  comfort, and in his memoirs writes movingly of a childhood imbued with catholicism. The iconoclasm for which he would become renowned began to flower in his late teens when he began to reject the “illogicality and power” of the church, and which would later inform his communist beliefs.

In 1917 Buñuel moved to Madrid to pursue his university studies, lodging at the iconic student´s residence in Rubén Darío. At the behest of his father, Buñuel began to study engineering, which he quickly abandoned in favour of literature. During the course of the 1920s the student´s residence would become the centre of intellectual liberalism in Spain, housing many of the so called generation ´27, a collection of some of the greatest artists that Spain has ever produced.

Here Buñuel formed friendships with the likes of Lorca and Salvador Dali. It was alleged that a long rumoured relationship between Lorca and Dali provoked an intense jealousy in Buñuel who, according to third party accounts, had become wholly smitten with Lorca.

Buñuel spent seven years in Madrid immersing himself in the surrealism which would later become his calling card, before decamping to Paris. There he honed his cinematic craft, producing  one of his first great cinematic works, Un Perro Andaluz (an Andalusian Dog).

After a stint in Hollywood as an observer of modern film making methods at MGM, where he rubbed shoulders with the the likes of Chaplin and Eisenstein, Buñuel returned to Spain in 1931. It was a heady political time in his native land, the eve of the declaration of the second Spanish Republic, and he immediately threw himself into political activism, joining the Spanish communist party (PCE) shortly after.

Buñuel was deeply involved in the war effort on the republican side, essentially becoming their propagandist in chief, and traveling abroad to promote the cause. His final trip in the service of the republic was in 1938 to the US, to oversee a Hollywood production about the war. In his absence, and after a brutal two and half year siege, Madrid finally fell to the fascists, effectively ending the war. A wanted man in Spain, and fearing retribution from the Franco if he stayed in Europe, Buñuel beat a well trodden path of exile to Mexico, where he gained residency, and thus began one of the most illustrious and prolific careers in twentieth century cinema.

Over the ensuing decades Buñuel stayed true to his political convictions and was duly blacklisted during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. He and his family were routinely subjected to interrogation at US points of entry, particularly en route to Spain, where he returned for work purposes several times in the latter years of the Franco dictatorship.

The first occasion was in 1960 to direct one of his most acclaimed productions, Viridiana. The film won the Palm Dór in Cannes, but was condemned by the Vatican and the Franco regime as blasphemous, and promptly banned. It was not officially shown in Spain until 1977. Buñuel returned again ten years later to shoot Tristiana in the company of his Belle de Jour star, Catherine Deneuve.

After a highly successful trilogy of films in the early 1970s, Buñuel, aging and in poor health, retired from the industry. His long time producer had repeatedly tried to coax one last film from him but Buñuel was happy to spend his final years “being old”, as he himself wryly put it, and completing his autobiography.

Entitled, My Last Sigh, it was published shortly after his death in 1982, and was described by the New York Times as “quite simply the loveliest testament ever left by a film director”. Buñuel died from cancer in Mexico city the following year.

Though his controversial political leanings had followed him all his life, whenever he was asked about his communist beliefs, he simply replied, “I am a Spanish republican”.

Luis Buñuel. A life in film.

Luis Buñuel directed more than 30 films in a career spanning 45 years. Described by critic Dominique Russell, as “a surrealist, an iconoclast…and provocateur”, Buñuel was never concerned about the likability of his characters, or of himself as a public figure and artist.

His films are often dedicated to mocking both own bourgeois upbringing and the corrupt institutions of the powerful, including the church and ruling classes. One of his first films, Land without Bread,was an early example of mockumentary, lambasting the inequities of Spanish society to such an extent that it was banned even by the republican government the Buñuel had voiced support for.

His exile to Mexico coincided with his most fallow artistic period. Limited by lack of resources and the constraints of the studio system, he produced the most uninspiring work of his career. The return to his native land to shoot Viridiana in 1960 seemed to rejuvenate his creative talent, and marked the beginning of his most prolific period, with a string of acclaimed productions, mostly shot in France, that delighted critics and movie goers alike.

The Diary of a Chambermaid made a star of Jeanne Moreau, while Belle de jour, wildly popular in France, featured the legendary Catherine Deneuve as the bored housewife who takes up prostitution in the afternoons as a form of sexual awakening. His final trilogy of films, as powerful a swansong as there has been in the world of cinema, saw Buñuel return to a long favoured theme, the respectable veneer of bourgeois life.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was the first Spanish film to win an Oscar for best foreign film, and follows the descent into savagery of a supposedly refined group of bourgeoise characters, memorably described by critic Adrian Martin as “a surrender to animalistic drives and the stripping away of all social hypocrisy”.

This was followed by The Phantom of Liberty and his final work, another acclaimed masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire. Buñuel, iconoclast and contrarian to the death, had all three films conclude with acts of violence, squashing the potential for anything remotely resembling a conventional happy ending.

John Boyce is an Irish journalist based in Spain, writing about politics, history and culture.

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