Friday, June 3, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: El (1953)

El (1953) *** ½
Directed by: Luis Bunuel.
Written by: Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza based on the novel by Mercedes Pinto.
Starring: Arturo de Córdova (Francisco Galvan de Montemayor), Delia Garcés (Gloria Milalta), Luis Beristáin (Raul Conde), Aurora Walker (Esperanza Peralta), Carlos Martínez Baena (Padre Velasco), Manuel Dondé (Pablo), Rafael Banquells (Ricardo Luján), Fernando Casanova (Beltrán).

Earlier in this series, when I wrote about Luis Bunuel’s Los Olivados, I spoke of how different that film – with its gritty realism – was from most of Bunuel’s more famous films, which embraced surrealism, and were in effect dark comedies about sexual desire, and the ridiculousness of it all. His film El, made just a few short years after Los Olivados, is more in line with his more famous later films – you could even say that it is almost like a dry run from films such as Viridiana (1961), Tristania (1970) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). But while those films, despite their dark subject matter, could be described as dark comedies, where Bunuel pokes fun at the religious restrictions of society, and the ridiculousness of sexual desire that we are impossible to control, El tells a similar story but takes it much more seriously. Personally, I prefer the more playful Bunuel, but this film has it merits as well.

The movie tells the story of Francisco Galvan de Montemayor (Arturo de Cordova), a respectable man of about 40, who comes from money and is deeply admired in his community. When he first catches a glimpse of Gloria Milalta (Delia Garces), he falls immediately in love with her – and sets out to possess her completely. He doesn’t care that she is already engaged – to a friend of his no less – he becomes obsessed with her. With her fiancé out of town on an extended business trip, Francisco makes his move, and quickly wins Gloria over with his charms. But it is not long into their marriage before she regrets her decision. Francisco is jealous and possessive beyond all normal means – he keeps her hidden away in his large house, and questions her about her sexual past (in the process revealing that he was a virgin before meeting her). He grows insane with rage every time she even talks to another man. She reaches out for help – but her mother, their priest and everyone else seemingly doesn’t believe her. She is just a young, naïve woman, and doesn’t understand men they tell her. It is natural for him to be jealous. But no one knows the extent of his cruelty.

Bunuel was always a great visual filmmaker, and there are sequences in El that are unforgettable. In particular there is a scene where Francisco takes Gloria to the top of a bell tower, which will remind many viewers of a similar scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, made five years later. Hitchcock was addressing different sexual obsessions in his masterpiece, but it is quite clear that El served as a inspiration for him in making what I think is his best film.

The final scene in El is also quite haunting. It appears that Francisco has finally found some peace in his life – but that peace is really just a façade, and in the films haunting final shot, it is clear that he really hasn’t found peace at all. He is still obsessed with the same things. He never seems to realize that he had what he wanted – and that he is the one that blew it, not Gloria at all.

Watching El after seeing Bunuel’s later films that addressed similar issues, I cannot help but think that the film isn’t quite up to their level. Those later films though were masterpieces, and while I wouldn’t say that about El, I would definitely say that it is a near great film – and a must for all Bunuel fans.

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