Director: Luis Buñuel
Writer: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
Cinematographer: Christian Matras
by Jon Cvack
I’m now about halfway through Buñuel's good films (anything above a 3.7 on Netflix) and anticipate that most of the remaining films will fall into solid ⅘’s. He’s a type of filmmaker that makes you thankful for Criterion’s rich collection of supplemental materials. In these, we again meet co-writer Jeane-Claude Carriere who discusses that the idea came from Buñuel's interest in heretics, specifically the idea of believing contradictory ideas - such as, per Carriere’s example, that Jesus was both man and God, not just the son of God, or embodying God, but simultaneously just a man and also the supreme being.
Problem is I don’t really have a good enough understanding of heretics to really grasp why most of these issues are relevant. As usual, I get lost in some of the more bizarre and surreal moments. According to the other Criterion Supplement that explored this film at length, we learn that Buñuel didn’t care for psychology or deconstructing his film’s symbolism, which similar to Carriere’s point, is both infuriating and interesting, in that I don’t have to put too much stock into trying to find a meaning because there isn’t one, or if I do understand or have a strong insight into what something means (which is rare) I can be confident that it’s not necessarily wrong. Before the closing credits, a card pops up stating how accurate everything in the film is regarding heresy, stating, “Everything in this film concerning the Catholic religion and the heresies it has provoked, especially from the dogmatic point of view, is rigorously exact. The texts and citations are taken either direct from Scripture, or modern and ancient works on theology and ecclesiastical history.” Problem being that for anyone who’s unfamiliar with these events or points of view, it really doesn’t mean anything. You’re left thinking you might have seen something interesting, but not really confident enough to defend it either way.
The story involves two transients Pierre (Paul Frankeur) and Jean (Laurent Terzieff) as they travel along an ancient pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, who get involved with various surrealistic events along the way, often involving characters who discuss the contradictions of various religious principles - such as during a fencing match that I didn’t understand (it might be easier if I highlight what I did understand), Jean talks about the contradiction in being able to commit an evil act if God has designed you, knowing your fate before you’re born. Pierre responds that God provides each human free will, to which Jean responds that even if that’s true, you can’t also believe that God has a plan for each of us - for if he had a plan then all of our decisions, good or evil, were predetermined, rendering free will pointless, and hell as a destination pre-assigned from before we’re sentient. In another scene, a police officer and priest engage in another debate about belief versus non-belief, before the priest is taken away to a mental institution. Jesus makes periodic appearances in the film, with Mary telling him to keep his beard, as he gallivants with his disciples, eventually meeting two blind men in the end who he appears to have cured but really hasn’t, rather lying to them. Writing this only days later, I have images of little girls reciting a creepy speech, when a flashback cuts in with Communist Revolutionaries killing the Pope by Gun Fire. There’s some type of tribunal involving the heavily orthodox church deliberating over a heretic’s punishment.
I suppose if I read the books that Buñuel and Carriere cited I might have a greater understanding of these references (one book being the "Historia de Los Heterodoxos Espanoles" by Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo according to IMDb). I just don’t think it’s going to make any of this all that much more interesting. It’s clear that Buñuel was an atheist who was raised catholic, seeking to point all the contradictions and how humorous they actually are. I’m starting to buy these worlds from the get go, but I still struggle to understand the point of any of it, especially knowing that there isn’t necessarily one to be found. A person is in the room alone, then another person is there with no rhyme or reason, and that’s fine given the style, I just don’t know what it’s doing for me. Released after the tumultuous protests in Europe and the United States just a year earlier, this film was meant to subvert the established dogma, whether religious or political. It’s an interesting point - that essentially all ideologies have inherent contradictions and can’t operate without them. Too many times scenes went on for too long, or for not long enough. Taken in bits and pieces it’s a cool film, sure, especially given when it was made. Taken as a whole, though, it will make you kind of want to pull your hair out, as experimental films often do.
BELOW: What does it all mean, Basil?
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