The Surrealist Manifesto in Relation to The Works of Luis Buñuel
The Surrealist Manifesto, fathered by André Breton, has been widely regarded as the foremost essential guide in comprehending Surrealism as a movement. Be that as it may, artists were free to interpret the manifesto in a variety of ways that best fit their creative output, thus diversifying not only the amount of product surrealism produced, but also the style in which a surrealist work may differ in while still remaining surrealist. Different mediums such as art, music, photography and film are all used in conveying the extremely popular movement of the 1920s. In all the decades surrealism has been active it has successfully showcased a number of examples of surrealist works in all of these mediums. However, if surrealism has a set of definitions, an implication must be made that there is a specific medium which lends itself best to surrealism. Consequently, an argument must be expressed for cinema as being the most efficient outlet the movement has been exemplified through. Luis Buñuel, being the master of surrealist cinema, is the perfect example in which to prove this hypothesis. His films from his Mexican period Nazarin (1959), Viridiana (1961) and Simon of the Desert (1965) will all be explored while a careful notice of Catholic criticism shall be delved upon in a coexistent manner. Nevertheless, before delving into the works of Luis Buñuel it is essential to define how the Surrealist Manifesto approaches the movement through their own terms.
Consisting of nine points (André Breton, Surrealist Manifesto), the manifesto begins with an important four points which sets up their initial intentions. They make it clear that their purposes do not lie within literature, but rather other means of expression; perhaps of a more visual nature. Furthermore, Breton makes it clear to state how surrealism is not a new expression. It is a new method of using traditional expressions. This method is that of subconscious liberation in which the conscious behavior is set aside to let one’s subconscious dominate an artwork’s outcome. The latter two points concern themselves with the idealism of revolution, stating how this movement is not meant to be kind, but rather blunt and forceful upon a generation unfamiliar to the intentions of such radicals. The manifesto continues with the fifth and sixth points making a declaration concerning how both the social norms and thoughts of society will all be shaken and disturbed with the introduction of this new movement. The consecutive two points insinuate their revolt status, making it clear that they are willing to do anything necessary to accomplish their goals. Finally, the last declaration made in the Surrealist Manifesto is a statement which enforces and represents their aims at societal reincarnation through surrealism as a means of bringing back to life what the founding fathers of the movement found to be an artistically dead society. Nevertheless, defining surrealism alone does not solely help in understanding the works of Luis Buñuel as they are far too heavily infused with Catholic tradition to ignore such an influential element of the master’s three films present for discussion.
Luis Buñuel’s 1959 critique of Catholicism in Nazarin makes an obvious reference to the similarities shared between Mexican culture and Catholic traditions. The two have become permeated within each other within the framework of Mexican society, shown evidently in this film. The overlying theme within each of his films presented in this discussion is the deviation a character with saint-like traits is exposed to whilst being tempted away from their faith. Father Nazarin is a priest adored and esteemed by all in the small Mexican village in which he finds residence. Due to the poverty-stricken nature of the town, the overwhelming criminal population takes advantage of the priest with every chance granted to them. They do not even attempt to steal his possessions or food, but merely ask him for everything he has as they know he will give up any material possession for those who need it. With that being said, as the plot escalates a prostitute in the neighborhood finds herself fleeing from the law as she has committed murder. Knowing they will never find her within the confines of the priest’s home, she takes refuge with him. Being the kind-hearted man his religion calls him to be, Nazarin allows it. Taking care of her wounds, feeding her and providing shelter for a felon makes him an accomplice, eventually causing him to flee from the law at the request of the prostitute and her friend. The priest proceeds by taking to the road as a nomad, searching for work amongst farms and those in need. His plans backfire as his past catches up to him, forcing him to face the critique of a society choosing to ignore his deeds of humanity for perversion. Temptation being an overlying theme of Nazarin, this concept should be further explored within a Mexican context.
Through Sergio de la Mora’s Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film, a brief overview is given of the melodramas prevalent starting from the 1930s to the present time in Mexican cinema (Sergio de la Mora, Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film, 80-85). These melodramas range from the works of Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Dolores del Rio and Maria Felix. An obsession is made in Mexican culture over the idea of temptation. Catholicism, known for its oppressive ways, has enforced the ideology of sin and staying away from that which is sinful. Thus, this provides forbidden fruit for an overwhelming amount of audience members who have committed to this Catholic faith to an extent where seeing temptations being acted upon on screen almost serves an orgasmic pleasure in viewing. This explains the abundance of melodramatic cinema and its influence on this society and how the stars and films of the time thrived on exploiting the temptation of such viewers. Luis Buñuel takes this notion and critiques it even further in later works such as Viridiana, in which a surrealist’s perspective truly comes into full circle as he plays with different themes and expressions achieving a similar effect as Nazarin.
Viridiana explores a nun’s resistance to visiting her ailing uncle as she is finally forced into travelling by her mother superior. Visiting her uncle invokes themes of incest and betrayal to Catholic life as her unwillingness to marry the man forces him to poison her drink, deflowering the innocent nun. By doing so, he makes certain of her permanent leave from the nunnery. Ashamed of his actions, he later commits suicide by hanging himself. Ironically, Viridiana stays to look after his mansion as she invites homeless beggars from the town to take shelter in the home. Luis Buñuel uses the nun’s naivety to her disadvantage as he mimics The Last Supper scene in which Viridiana’s absence for a night leads the beggars to celebrate within the dinner room, causing a catastrophe to be unleashed as drunken fornication and murder dominate the activities held at the supper. This is where Buñuel begins to play with the idea of temptation, as he exploits her innocence as working against coherent logic.
Trusting the beggars and following her Catholic tradition of helping the poor, she ends up risking her life and the lives of those around her as they become violent and almost rape the nun. The surrealist twist added within this film plays out in this very scene, amongst others. It is as though the specific scenes mocking Catholicism are those which are most surrealist. Implications upon rape, deflowering, murder, temptation and betrayal are all used almost humorously as they utilize the trust promoted by Catholics as being foolish and naïve. The reason Buñuel’s mockery of Catholicism may be viewed in a surrealist light is mainly due to how the culture in which his films were based were heavily Catholic. Thus, this made his works an extreme version of heresy. Banned by Spain, the Catholic Church refused to support his type of cinema as they held an important influence within the governments of Mexico and Spain. In a society where it is not only frowned upon, but also found punishable by divine forces to speak against the Catholic faith, Luis Buñuel was not intimidated in expressing his inner thoughts about the religion and the society that worshipped it.
Especially in a work such as Viridiana, Buñuel made his intentions completely obvious by exaggerating Silvia Pinal’s, the nun, complexion and hair pigmentation as to only give emphasis as to her later corruption. Though it may only seem trivial to a modern audience, the final scene’s use of gambling is a testament to Viridiana’s lost faith as she chooses to participate with the rest of the characters in an act most of the world finds harmless.
Lastly, Luis Buñuel’s 1965 classic Simon of The Desert is perhaps the best example of a surrealist work interlaced with Catholic critique. The film centers on another saint-like figure who spends his days and nights endlessly standing on a pillar in the middle of a barren desert in which priests and laymen alike view him as a miracle-worker and Holy man. Surrealism and Catholic temptation may intertwine best in this film as Buñuel finds a perfect balance within 45 minutes to showcase the relationship between the two dynamic forces. Never needing to satisfy his own needs, Simon recites prayers throughout the day as he refuses to eat or communicate with even his own mother. However, the surrealist style portrayed in his film is not lost within the story of this saint-like figure. Buñuel’s willingness to portray temptation as a central theme to his critique remains a vital notion in this work.
Appearing several times throughout the film, Silvia Pinal appears as Satan as he embodies the persona of a variety of characters ranging from a common laborer, a prostitute, a fellow priest, an old lady and finally God himself. Though for the most part Simon remains knowledgeable of the disguises put forth by Satan, he eventually gives in to the temptation regardless of whether or not he knows he is being tricked. Towards the end of the film, Satan convinces Simon to travel a long journey as they end up in modern day New York City, dancing and smoking in an upbeat nightclub. Thus, it seems as though the concept of temptation has been an extremely relevant theme within Luis Buñuel’s body of work concerning Catholicism.
In all three of these films, the surrealist master makes it a crucial point to suggest the corruption of Holy people by a society which they not only fought to protect, but also trusted in God to provide care for their worship and good deeds. Therefore, Luis Buñuel is using his surrealist viewpoint to distort a commonly held Catholic belief in a way which takes the average spectator of the era into an unfamiliar world which the religion they are accustomed to practicing is exposed as a corrupted lifestyle. As a result, it is extremely essential in exploring as to why Luis Buñuel found it necessary to use cinema as his main vehicle of expression for this task only surrealism could manage in justly portraying.
As Michael Richardson clarifies how Luis Buñuel resigned “from the Surrealist Group in 1932 [he still] asserted his fundamental surrealist credentials, and the case for him to be regarded as the surrealist film maker would seem to be open and shut” (Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema, 27). His first few efforts as a surrealist filmmaker were a collaboration between him, Salvador Dali, and the rest of the Surrealist Group. It seems as though not only were his initial contributions to these films limited in so far as the rest of the group’s input was concerned, but also a byproduct of chance. Richardson makes it known that Buñuel’s intrigue in surrealism came upon the perfect timing seeing as how “a wealthy sponsor associated with the surrealists, Vicomte de Noailles, wished to support film as a vanity project… his first three films were the result of such objective chance” giving the reality that his initial pictures were funded by his generous mother and a friend of Buñuel’s who had happened to win the most recent lottery (Richardson, 29). Thus, one can only assume that Buñuel’s early success in surrealism may be attributed partially to the timing and generosity of others without taking away any credit from his genius.
However, it has become increasingly difficult for analysis of Buñuel’s later works in the movement of surrealism when taking into account the unarguable acclaim his first two films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’or have received upon their initial releases (Richardson, 28) as being regarded the quintessential surrealist works. Be that as it may, it is extremely important to absorb the later works of the surrealist master as equally-deserving pieces due to the fact that they originate from a more personal perspective given how Catholic critique dominates the body of these masterpieces. His beginnings in the world of surrealism is an important transition in explaining cinematic surrealism due to how his divergence and independence from the movement he was once associated with led for him to branch away from the style of the Surrealist Group and define his own branch of surrealism. This is why he is considered the most important filmmaker in surrealist cinema (Richardson, 27). Now that the roots of Luis Buñuel’s divergence from the surrealist movement have been covered, it is vital to present surrealism as a subconscious entity explained by Sigmund Freud before it can be analyzed through a cinematic perspective.
In Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, he declares how the subconscious “is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense organs” (Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 607). Freud makes it clear that the subconscious and the conscious are two separate systems that the mind uses to convey our most inner motives and behavioral actions. The subconscious can be most easily attributed to our dreams, while the conscious can be most easily associable to our waking life. This is where certain dream symbols may come into place, metaphorically showing us glimpses of our true desires and motives though we may not interpret them easily at first. This correlates directly to surrealism as both Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, two artists many critics consider to be the fathers of the movement, adopted the idea of the subconscious reality into their artworks. They were incredibly fascinated with the idea of a hidden reality only accessible through dreams so much so that they applied this ideology to most, if not all, of their films and paintings. Subconscious thoughts being an extraordinarily difficult notion to conceptualize, one may only ponder on why cinema is best fit for this task. Music, photography and art through the decades since the founding of the movement have demonstrated exceptional cases of surrealism, yet cinema has to have been the medium most profoundly affected by the introduction of this movement.
Therefore, cinema has been surrealism’s most accomplished companion most surely because of its undeniable use of imagery. Freud’s theories on the subconscious thought process has made the use of symbols a necessary outlet to convey hidden meaning. Thus, cinema’s visual nature lends itself perfectly to the movement in ways almost incomparable to other mediums. In making his first few works, Luis Buñuel’s My Last Sigh explains how he and Salvador Dali made it a rule that “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted” (Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, 104). In agreeing with and being influenced by Freud, they let their subconscious speak louder than their conscious, cinematically speaking, because they realized it is the subconscious part of the human psyche that dominates all actions and behaviors. Buñuel’s first few works attracted much controversy as it showed off unrelenting imagery of sinful nature when relating to his obsession with Catholicism. Both of the artists being anti-religion, they made use of the fact by criticizing organized religion with visuals of priests carrying out questionable acts, violent depictions of home life and other similar situations which caused audiences to not only questions what they were seeing, but also aroused speculation on analysis of the work. However, analyzing something that is surreal is extremely contradictory when speculating the word itself.
When surrealism is analyzed, the critic analyzing the work is attempting to add inherent meaning or intention to the images displayed on the screen. The fault with this perhaps lies with the artist’s lack of intention. When creating such an impressive list of works as Buñuel’s, one evidently regards them as intended masterpieces crafted carefully by a mind of pure genius. However, this is not always the case. Luis Buñuel takes advantage of Freud’s subconscious theories by letting his own subconscious symbols and metaphors replace any assumed story or meaning in his films. This, obviously, will stump any critic trying to pull significant meaning from a surrealist work. With that being said, surrealism cannot be analyzed. It may only be experienced. Stating that surrealist work may be “understood” is implying that the artist had a fixed interpretation to his work, when in reality they are merely adding imagery to an artwork they themselves do not fully comprehend. This is not to say the level of mastery one must have to create such work is all of a sudden leveled down. On the contrary, it takes a master of such craft to have the creativity to interpret subconscious thoughts into artistic bliss. Luis Buñuel did this effortlessly as he let the oppression he hid within him from his childhood take control of his films.
As stated earlier, temptation being a central theme to Catholic tradition, Buñuel was not exempt from this religious enforcement. However, he rebelled quite differently than most people. When the majority of Catholic society in the Americas dedicated their time to watching melodramas aimed towards filling in a void left open by temptations otherwise unspecified in the Catholic Bible, Buñuel decided to express his hatred and critique for the religion which caused him to repress his own inner thoughts and desires. Being creatively relevant in the 1920s gave him the opportunity in being introduced to the movement he was eventually going to call his own. The two fit each other perfectly, as one calls for repressed images of the subconscious to be set free and the other was repressed all his life in hope of artistic liberation through any means necessary. Ironically enough, it is perhaps the Church’s oppression that caused Buñuel to be creatively liberated throughout the remainder of his life. Yet, if he had been born in any other decade other than the one he was conceived in, his artistic genius might have been largely ignored by both society and himself. This may be shown to be true in seeing as how surrealism was only a passing phase throughout the 1920s which only remained relevant through the initial group of surrealist artists whom started the movement from its inception.
Luis Buñuel has become a cinematic master of surrealism due mainly to the repression he faced as a child in a Catholic society dominated by the idea of temptation in everyday life. The difference lies in his reaction and resistance to the notion of forbidden fruit, and how he used his artistic drive to not only critique the regimes in which he grew up on, but also how he delved into his own subconscious to learn more about what his inner thoughts concerned themselves with. These reasons alone make the movement of surrealism an even more intriguing one. By watching a surrealist film, analysis is futile because the images and the characters involved in the story correlate undeniably with the life of the artist behind the work. It can be said that a variety of other mediums may also achieve this effect. However, only cinema visualizes the art form to the extent this movement requires. The fact that cinema is the only medium which comes close to realizing similar affects of a dream makes it all the more power. No other art form comes close to dramatizing a dream in such a realistic fashion. With that being said, no other artist has come close to equalizing the amount of surrealistic qualities Buñuel has implemented within his own works. However, Buñuel is not a surrealist purely because of chance or luck. Nor are his films praised merely because they cannot be understood and only appear to be of merit. No, both the movement and the artist associated with one another in such a cohesive manner because Luis Buñuel decided to use surrealism to liberate the thoughts and the impulses his religion had suppressed.
Breton, André. “Surrealist Manifesto.” Thompson, MJ. Visual & Performing Arts in Canada. Montreal, QC: Concordia University, 2012. 55.
Buñuel, Luis. My Last Sigh. Vintage, 1984.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Basic Books, 1955.
Mora, Sergio de la. Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2006.
Nazarín. Dir. Luis Buñuel. 1959.
Richardson, Michael. Surrealism and Cinema. Berg Publishers, 2006.
Simon of the Desert. Dir. Luis Buñuel. 1965.
Viridiana. Dir. Luis Buñuel. 1961.