To my daughter Cassandra
Before the first consumer-grade videotapes came out in the mid-1970s, it stands to reason that movies were not that readily available for the general public. If you were a well-established Hollywood director who happened to come across an obscure foreign film from a Third World country and you were impressed by it, could there be anything wrong with borrowing a thing or two and recontextualising the source into your own work? Is this a form of cultural appropriation or the ultimate artistic tribute to “the other”? Perhaps the key lies in whether the filmmaker makes a point of acknowledging their film’s precursors in the genealogical tree of world cinema, or risks someone else sooner or later doing it for them.
Some filmmakers acknowledge their sources openly and others do not. In the opening credits of 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995), for instance, the director acknowledges the short film La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962) as his source of inspiration. A viewing of Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) would suggest that its director fully embraces the legacy of the Yugoslav film Dom za vesanje (Time of the Gypsies, Emir Kusturica, 1988), but a public recognition of this apparently hasn’t occurred yet. In contrast, a film can have a precursor without the director being aware of that particular genome in its heritage. I speak from experience; when my film La otra conquista (The Other Conquest, Salvador Carrasco, 1998) was released in the US, The Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas found kinship with the cinema of Sergei Parajanov, even though at that time I was not familiar with the Armenian master’s work.1 Conversely, upon reading the article that I wrote about The Painted Bird (Václav Marhoul, 2019) for this publication, Czech director Václav Marhoul and I started corresponding by email. After watching my film The Other Conquest, Marhoul told me how much he liked it and that it reminded him of his favorite film: Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Werner Herzog, 1972). In this case the comparison resonated differently. While I didn’t consciously set out to emulate the film about the Basque Spanish Conqueror’s epic descent into madness, it is one of the films I researched while preparing my own.
Controversially enough (if not outright apocryphally), Pablo Picasso declared that “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal”, appropriating in turn Igor Stravinsky’s “A good composer does not imitate; he steals”, and both knowingly or not channelling T.S. Eliot’s “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. In a moment of Prufrockian immodesty, Eliot labelled his own quote as “an example of great artists stealing”,2 suggesting that all art is constructed through an endless process of continuity and renewal. The very “invention” in 1895 of the elegant contraption that gave cinema its name – the Cinématographe, as conceived by Louis and Auguste Lumière – wouldn’t have been possible without Thomas Alva Edison and company’s Kinematograph and Kinetoscope. No Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) without The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958); no The Mandalorian (Jon Favreau, 2019-) without The Man With No Name Trilogy (Sergio Leone, 1964-1966); no K-Pax (Iain Softley, 2001) without Hombre mirando al sudeste (Man Facing Southeast, Eliseo Subiela, 1986); no Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) without Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962); no Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair (Quentin Tarantino, 2011) without Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita, 1973); no The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006) without Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau, 2002), etc. There are countless examples in the history of cinema about which much has been written. Although the parent creations may not be as widely known or part of the cultural zeitgeist as their successors, it is well advised for filmmakers to make some attempt to credit their inspiration. If not, critics uncover these connections and by the time they share them with a curious public, eyebrows might be raised.
Case in point, even a cursory search reveals that not enough attention has been paid to the debt that the universally acclaimed Hollywood classic Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) owes to a much lesser known, yet absolutely riveting Mexican film made five years earlier by a Spanish director: El (Luis Buñuel, 1953). A noteworthy exception is a blog written not by a film critic but by a scholar on the Middle East, which explores the male-hysteria similarities between the protagonists of El and Vertigo, played respectively by Arturo de Córdova and James Stewart.3 Based on the 1926 novel Pensamientos (Thoughts) by Mercedes Pinto, El focusses on the paranoid jealousies of a Mexico City denizen whom Buñuel ostensibly sees as the archetypical Mexican man – a notion supported by the generic title of the film: El, the Spanish word for “he”. In Vertigo – based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac – Hitchcock appropriates Buñuel’s cultural specificity and turns it into a universal paradigm of obsession focussed on a man shaping a woman to satisfy his own desire. The bounty-homage paid off: In the most recent Sight & Sound Poll of the Greatest Films of All Time, which is held every decade, Vertigo ranked at the top of the list, displacing Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941).4
Ultimately what matters most is whether a film stands on its own or not. Yet I wonder if in the good old days, a consecrated Hollywood filmmaker like Hitchcock might have felt it was easier to get away with cultural appropriation since chances were that most people would never get to know a minor film that had originated in a Third World country. It goes without saying that Vertigo is a masterpiece in its own right, and it would be disingenuous to accuse Hitchcock of plagiarism or anything of the sort. Notwithstanding, let us acknowledge that the Vertigo–El dichotomy is an intriguing cinematic example of the famous “great artists steal” dictum. And to make matters more appropriately surreal, Buñuel himself was somewhat disparaging of El,5 though that might have been due to the film’s poor reception when it first came out in Mexico.
Hitchcock once praised the cinema of Buñuel for being “simple”.6 It is hard to ascertain whether the British director meant it with a tad of condescension – a trap that First World artists sometimes fall into when referring to their Third World counterparts – or as an insightful assessment of how simple things in art can be quite complex and laborious to accomplish. To be fair, Hitchcock purportedly also called Buñuel “the best director in the world” at a Hollywood party,7 amidst a crowd who probably regarded it as gracious of him to do so, since that label was generally ascribed to Hitchcock himself.
As for El being a primary source of Vertigo, the mirroring starts right away. The opening credits of El are superimposed against a fixed shot inside a colonial bell tower that looks uncannily similar to the iconic bell tower in Vertigo. Not only that but the accompanying music by Luis Hernández Bretón, which prefigures the unsettling tone of Buñuel’s movie, could be an excerpt from Bernard Herrmann’s famous score for Vertigo, composed five years later. “Befeetingly” enough, the opening scene combines some of Buñuel’s characteristic obsessions: peculiar Catholic rituals, eroticism, humans succumbing to their irrational impulses… and feet. Francisco Galván de Montemayor (who shares first name with the infamous General Franco, responsible for Buñuel’s self-exile from Spain at the outbreak of the 1936 Civil War) is both tempted and repelled by the sight of Father Velasco conducting the washing of feet on Holy Thursday. Francisco’s mixed feelings echo the audience’s in witnessing this alleged gesture of priestly humility being facilitated by the aristocratic, all-male Knights of the Holy Sacrament, to which Francisco proudly belongs. When Father Velasco kisses a prepubescent boy’s foot in close-up, Francisco is drawn like a sexual magnet to a pair of high-heeled female shoes. A tilt-up via seamed stockings and white-gloved hands leads to the face of Gloria Vilalta, who stares at the altar above with as much piety as self-fulfillment, for she clearly registers that she has just become the object of this man’s desire.
When bourgeois conventions get in the way of sexual desire in a Buñuel film, neurotic behaviour ensues. Such an undercurrent runs all the way from his early gems, Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929) and L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel, 1930), to his final masterpiece, Cet obscure objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel, 1977). Francisco’s attempt to make contact with Gloria at the baptismal font is thwarted by the intrusion of Gloria’s mother, and then outside the church by Father Velasco himself.
Back home an uptight Francisco picks a fight with his lawyer and fires him, and upon finding that his butler, Pablo, has sexually harassed his maid, he fires… her. The irony is that Francisco is convinced that his defining virtue is his fairness: “I accept any defect except being unfair,” he declares to Gloria later in the film. “Few men possess so keen a sense of justice as I do.” Unaware of anything but his own frustration, he lies down in bed and is perturbed by a religious painting above his head that is slightly crooked until Pablo straightens it for him. Obsessed with Gloria, Francisco returns to the church where he first spotted her and finds her sitting towards the front of the dark nave, with his back to him. In the diegetic soundtrack we hear Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on the organ. This scene is full of erotic tension, with Gloria’s demeanour oscillating between leaning back towards him, fleeing the scene but not really leaving, and then confessing to Francisco that she herself doesn’t know why she came back to the church to begin with, knowing she would meet him. Be as it may, she assures him that this simply cannot be. So Francisco starts stalking her.
In Vertigo Scottie has been stalking Madeleine for a while. When he enters the moody chapel at Mission Dolores in San Francisco, there’s also organ music playing. He catches a glimpse of Madeleine fleeing and he continues to trail her, avoiding physical contact given the nature of the private-investigator plot in Hitchcock’s film. There is a strikingly similar use of cinematic language between when Francisco sees Gloria in the church and when Scottie spots Madeleine at the Palace of the Legion of Honor’s art museum: Scottie’s point of view of Madeleine’s back, side-lit, her upright body language much like Gloria’s, and her hair in a Spanish-style bun reminiscent of Gloria’s fur hat. Both are looking at icons of dead people – Madeleine is fixated on the painting of Carlotta Valdés and Gloria on the phantasmagorical saints of the Baroque Catholic altar.
The reason why Gloria half-heartedly rebuffed Francisco becomes apparent soon enough. She meets with her fiancé, Raúl Conde, at a restaurant. A Renoiresque dolly out linking the interior to the exterior (a subjective point of view that turns into an objective over-the-shoulder shot) reveals Francisco spying on them. He smirks. Gloria being “taken” is not an impediment for him – the confident, bourgeoise, middle-aged male of means that he is. And the fact that Raúl happens to be his friend only makes his scheme more doable. He sets out to possess the object of his desire, putting on standby his moral convictions, which in Buñuel’s universe amount to a façade waiting to be ransacked by desire.
Francisco invites Raúl and his unsuspecting fiancée to a gathering at his mansion, a surreal combination of Art Nouveau and Gaudí-like architecture that confirms Salvador Dalí’s assertion: “I can’t stand to be in a country that is more surrealist than my paintings.”8 Francisco flirts with Gloria at every opportunity, and after dinner their sex hormones are awakened during a live piano performance of Schumann’s ode to Chopin, Carnaval, Op.9: No. 12. This is the same piano piece Buñuel used two decades later in Le fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, Luis Buñuel, 1974), in the scene in which the Prefect of Police is lured by his bare-breasted sister’s piano playing. Fired by the impassioned music, Francisco and Gloria appear as if they want to devour each other, evoking the star-crossed lovers of L’Age d’Or. Here too, their erotic spell is interrupted by a random event – a noise from an adjacent room Francisco must go inspect. Gloria moves to the window overlooking the garden, where Francisco is sure to follow. There we see them from the outside looking in, their intimacy kept from the audience and in a way even from one another, since Buñuel and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa’s composition splits the frame with a crossbar.
Words are spoken that the audience is not privy to (unless you read lips and know Spanish). This kind of purely cinematic language – deliberately withholding dialogue from the audience – was also used by Hitchcock in some of his films; eg: the climactic attempted assassination of a diplomat in The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956). Once Francisco and Gloria are out in the garden, isolated from Raúl and everyone else, they are able to consummate what the lovers in L’Age d’Or never could due to ceaseless interruptions. Francisco and Gloria’s passionate kiss cuts to the roaring explosion of a dam, in a barefaced metaphor for sex akin to the first kiss between Scottie and Madeleine in Vertigo. Its use by Buñuel and Hitchcock is analogous both in form and content. As they kiss waves explode behind them. Just like Francisco couldn’t care less that Gloria is about to marry Raúl, Scottie has no qualms about crossing the line of American puritanism with a woman “married” to an old acquaintance of his, who on top of everything hired Scottie to protect her. Both men betray their friends and the prevailing moral codes of the 1950s in order to possess the women with whom they’re infatuated. They are self-righteous and never question what they’re doing because, in their minds, rules don’t apply to them.
At the construction site of the exploding dam, Raúl resentfully announces that he must go to Mexico City on business. If it were up to him, he would never go back to the capital. This is Buñuel’s elegant way of letting us know that ever since Francisco and Gloria’s subversive kiss in the garden, much has happened that he omitted – the sort of experimentation with elliptical plot construction that filmmakers of the French New Wave became renowned for in the 1960s. In short, Francisco’s scheme triumphed: Gloria married him and Raúl is out of the picture… But not for long. There must be a good incentive for why we didn’t see what Buñuel didn’t show us.
What follows is part of the reason why this is one of my favorite Buñuel movies. I believe that whether or not it was intended by the director is somewhat beside the point, since either way a new development is evident from the film’s grammar. Back in the megalopolis Raúl is driving his car in a city then inhabited by roughly four million people when, “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”, Gloria steps in front of his car and is nearly run over by her former fiancé.
This is almost too absurd to be coincidence. If anything, it reminds us of Gloria’s behaviour towards Francisco in the church, or the night of the explosive kiss in the garden. In spite of himself, Raúl is pleased to see her and gets out of the car. When she confides she’s not feeling well, he does the gentlemanly thing and offers to drive her home. She vehemently refuses – after all, she is a married woman in a profoundly Catholic country – and so he apologises, offers his eternal pledge of friendship, and returns to his car. As he starts driving away, she stops him and jumps on board. Without hesitation Gloria launches into a diatribe of how much she suffers in her marriage to Francisco.
It is at this point that El shifts its viewpoint to Gloria’s own subjective narrative through a series of flashbacks. Her account begins on her wedding night with Francisco and reaches the morning of her “fortuitous” encounter with Raúl. In screen time, we spend the next 55 minutes inside her mind; ie: two thirds of the movie.
It’s interesting to reassess El in the era of the #MeToo movement, at a time where, for instance, we may watch a documentary like Allen v. Farrow (Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, 2021) and read Allen’s own memoir, Apropos of Nothing, and find ourselves left with two alternate accounts of the same event or non-event. The version of reality accepted as truth will likely have much to do with our own life experiences, ideology, politics, and biases. As is often the case, we may ponder the time-immemorial question of whether the art and artist can truly be separated. This quandary runs in tandem with the history of cinema, from D.W. Griffith as champion of the slaver Confederacy to Woody Allen as a possible child molester – both masterful filmmakers nowadays regarded as questionable human beings.
The moment Gloria’s narrative begins, El demands that we take her story at face value. The seeds have already been effectively planted in terms of Francisco’s self-centeredness and ability to do whatever it takes to get his way, but what we are now going to be exposed to adds a whole new dimension to his character development. We got to know Francisco in pursuit of the object of his desire, but now that he believes he in effect “possesses” Gloria, her account will reveal a behemoth of mythical proportions consumed by jealousy, paranoia, and sexual insecurity disproportionate (or perfectly consistent, depending on the optic) with his boundless ego.
Per Gloria’s reality, problems started on their wedding night, during the train ride to the picturesque colonial city of Guanajuato, where Francisco singlehandedly decided to spend their honeymoon. Eager to do what must be done on such a night, they reiterate how much they’ve been waiting for this moment, implying they have gone along with Catholic traditionalism and have not had sex yet. As they lovingly kiss, Gloria closes her eyes and that is all it takes to set Francisco off: “Tell me the truth, whom are you thinking of?” he asks reproachfully. For real? He is dead serious. Francisco accuses Gloria of thinking of Raúl, who is not only younger than him but no doubt kissed and caressed her many times when they were dating. (It is tempting to imagine Raúl’s reaction in the car as Gloria is telling all this to him.) Francisco blames her of surely having had many other men in her past as well. She cannot believe her ears. He assures her he just wants to know everything and then he’ll forget it all. “Talk to me like your confessor, I am your husband.” Gloria says she has nothing to be ashamed of, Francisco yells at her some more, and then he turns off the light and retires to his own bed, “punishing” her for an imagined past. After a few moments, he crawls back to her bed, asks for forgiveness whimpering like a toddler, and at long last, they make love. Cut to a train flashing by, foreshadowing the celebrated, albeit “stolen” (Picasso dixit) sex metaphor in North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959).
What exactly are we witnessing here, once Gloria’s account kicks into gear in El? What is this turn of phrase, this magnifying lens focussed on a once noble creature turned “paragon of animals”?9 Is this a proto-feminist critique of men at the cusp of their quintessential stupidity, or is it a middle-aged Buñuel (he was born in 1900) recognising and confronting the behemoth within? In any case, what is remarkable in El is Buñuel’s tone: earnest, restrained, and emotionally detached, like a steadfast entomologist studying the complexities of human behaviour under a microscope.
According to Buñuel’s wife of nearly 50 years, French actress and gymnast Jeanne Rucar, Luis “never talked to me about his projects, dreams, or screenplays, nor about money matters or religion. We never had shared ideas or responsibilities. He decided everything: where to live, when to eat, our outings, our children’s education, and even my hobbies and my friendships.” Her 1990 Memoir of a Woman Without a Piano: My Life with Luis Buñuel immortalized such deprivations by her husband. The story goes that when Jeanne once told him she had had a pleasant in-person chat with their common friend and composer of several of Buñuel’s films, Gustavo Pittaluga, Buñuel went berserk. “Did you sleep with him?” he erupted. He reached for the phone, “Gustavo, I’m on my way to your house to kill you,” a threat not to be taken lightly from a man who always carried a gun on him. He didn’t kill their friend, but Jeanne was mortified. Unsurprisingly, Buñuel identified strongly with the protagonist of El: “I was moved by a man capable of such jealousy, with such loneliness and so much interior violence.”10
During Francisco and Gloria’s honeymoon in Guanajuato, a friend from her Argentinian past, Ricardo, haphazardly meets them at the Pipila statue tourist site, and needless to say, Francisco is not thrilled about the encounter. We see Francisco gradually taking control of Gloria, from making decisions about her holiday snapshots to ordering her food. Likewise, in Vertigo Scottie undresses Madeleine and dresses her alter ego Judy at will, and he decides on her hair’s color and style. And why not, Hitchcock also indulges in a Buñuel-style shot of eroticised shoes.
Later in the day Francisco avoids crossing paths with Ricardo on the streets of Guanajuato, but as fate would have it, the young man shows up at their hotel’s restaurant and enthusiastically greets the newlyweds. Francisco suspects he’s following Gloria and treats the perceived stalker like a worm. Back at his table, Ricardo is bantering with a waiter and laughs out loud. Francisco is convinced the affront is directed at him. He’s had it; he tells Gloria they’ll eat upstairs. Once in their bedroom, caught in the foot-fetish mindset to which Buñuel gave free rein in Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Buñuel, 1964), Francisco is duly diverted by Gloria’s shoes, which he fastidiously arranges in the wardrobe. His mood much improved, he steps outside the room to fetch coffee, only to find that Ricardo is their next-door neighbour. He hurries back inside and tells Gloria, who is in her underwear, that Ricardo is lurking behind the connecting door, trying to partake in their intimacy. Francisco grabs a needle and stabs it into the keyhole, hoping to pull a Kit Marlowe on him. But alas, Ricardo was not peeping, so the aggrieved husband must confront him in person. Francisco slaps him and Ricardo punches him back, knocking him down. Ricardo is the one who’s seeing red now, so he starts kicking Francisco on the head. Gloria intercedes for Francisco, yelling out the memorable pacifist cry from Los olvidados: ¡No le pegues, no le pegues! (Don’t hit him, don’t hit him!). The manager arrives and kicks Ricardo out of the hotel no questions asked, putting his faith in the shining example of respectability that is Francisco (eye-stabbing attempt aside). Francisco looks frankly insane as, back in the room, he lays the blame on Gloria: “It’s all your fault, I’ll never forgive you.” Cross-cutting to the interior of Raúl’s car reminds us that Gloria is in fact weaving this story for her former fiancé, to whom she confides, “It was at this moment I knew I was doomed.”
A few days later the newlyweds are back from their honeymoon fiasco. Francisco does the unimaginable in Mexican civilised society: He spurns his mother-in-law. And then, doing something much more imaginable in 1950s Mexico, he doesn’t allow Gloria to see anyone else for months. Apropos of familial ties, we learn barely anything about Francisco’s background; only the priest’s mention-in-passing that Francisco inherited his surreal house from his father, but nothing about his mother or any other relatives. The radical absence of backstory in a culture where family is a categorical imperative cannot be overlooked. I’ve been referencing how Buñuel’s El influenced Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I wonder if by the same token – the dissection of a man who represents any number of men – El was influenced by Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952), which had come out the year before. Umberto is a proxy for all elderly men in post-World War II Italy, hence the title of the film omits his surname. Buñuel was an admirer of Italian neorealism in general and De Sica in particular, and he openly acknowledged Sciuscià (Shoeshine, Vittorio De Sica, 1946) as an inspiration for Los olvidados.
On Gloria’s birthday, Francisco surfaces in her bedroom nice and cheerful, and he gives her a fancy perfume as a gift. He wants something from her. Francisco has organised a dinner for Gloria with the ulterior motive of charming his new attorney. To that effect, he asks Gloria to spare no effort in aiding the cause, a risky proposition from a pathologically jealous man. As part of the unilateral deal, Francisco has invited Gloria’s mother to the dinner. Gloria smiles again, and they hug. At the party Francisco insists that Gloria keep the attorney happy, and she dutifully complies. They dance under Francisco’s vigilant gaze. Gloria feels hot and takes the attorney out to the garden. Alarm bells go off in Francisco’s head, as this scenario mirrors the night when he and Gloria first kissed in that same garden, with an unsuspecting Raúl enjoying the party inside the house. Later in the night, wearing a nightgown and feeling self-assured, Gloria applies the perfume. She is looking forward to a reconciliation, maybe even some pleasurable sex. But Francisco “the punisher” locks himself in his bedroom, chastening his wife for doing, well, precisely what he asked her to do.
The following morning Francisco has breakfast alone, locks himself in his studio, and at dinner he treats her like an invisible sight until he accidentally drops his eyeglasses on the floor. He bends down to pick them up and, thank God for small mercies, he sees her shoes again. This is another shot that Buñuel self-quotes in The Phantom of Liberty two decades later, de-eroticising it in the French film: the innocuous Prefect of Police doesn’t even look at his sister’s legs, as opposed to where most audience members’ eyes gravitate.
Francisco is beyond aroused and immediately pounces on Gloria. She is not into it here and now – among other things, she’s in the midst of chewing her food – and pushes him away. Francisco doesn’t deal with sexual rejection too gallantly and accuses her of being a tramp; her “seduction” of the attorney the previous night, of course, is high on the list.
Pablo (the butler) brings in the coffee, and Gloria demands that Francisco stop harassing her, for they are not alone. Francisco commands Pablo to stay because “the truth must be heard by all”. At long last, in an act of defiance, Gloria leaves the table. Francisco follows her upstairs.
Cut to a shot of the church-like Gothic-nouveau staircase, over which we hear Gloria’s off-screen shrieking and crying. Francisco has escalated the scenario of emotional distress to overt physical attacks. It is left to our imagination to fill in what happened then and there. Rape is not out of the question, and if so, it would help explain the child named Francisco whom we’ll meet at the end of the film.
Considering that we are still within the narrative of Gloria’s account of events, the intercut of Pablo being woken up by the commotion somewhat transgresses Buñuel’s rigorous regles de jeu, since Gloria never had access to Pablo’s bedroom. But we’ll turn a blind eye for the sake of a fitting sociological question that pervades many of Buñuel’s movies: Why is it that the likes of Pablo, who are suspended in a social-class limbo and will never be regarded as equal, unconditionally side with their masters against their own kind? As a mestizo, Pablo has much more in common with Gloria as an oppressed woman than he ever will with his creole patrón Francisco, but such a thought never enters the butler’s head.
What follows is a very frustrating succession of events for Gloria. She finally decides to confide in her mother about her miserable existence, but Francisco beats her to the punch and does quite a number on his mother-in-law. By the time Gloria reconnects one-on-one, her mother is impervious to her complaints, including the bruises Gloria shows her. “Francisco is a jealous man because he believes your behaviour is not appropriate. He acknowledges that because he loves you so much, he sometimes gets blinded.” In other words, he beats you because he loves you. So much for female solidarity. Gloria sinks even lower by seeking the advice of Father Velasco, a blind devotee of saintly Francisco. She seems bewildered when the priest makes darkness visible about Francisco being a virgin until Gloria came along.
All in all, it becomes clear to Gloria that Francisco also paid a preemptive visit to Father Velasco. The priest condescendingly offers to give her advice. Gloria tells him she doesn’t need it and exits, leaving him firmly rooted in impotence. This is a landmark moment in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (roughly 1936-1956), for it is not often that we see a woman assert her sense of self by sending a priest to hell. When Gloria returns home, Francisco already knows that she went to see Father Velasco. He’s waiting for her with a gun. His parting words are, “To make sure you never again tell anyone about our private affairs…” And he shoots her three times, point blank.
Back in the car, Raúl is as puzzled as we are. For a moment Gloria’s account had led us to believe Francisco had indeed killed her, despite the fact that she’s been here all along, sitting right next to Raúl. It is a nice little reminder of the power of suspension of disbelief in cinema. We have believed every word she’s uttered and taken her story to be “true”, which may or may not be the case. Buñuel subtly derides our gullibility as Gloria explains to Raúl (and us) that Francisco used blank cartridges, in order to teach her a lesson. Raúl is irate: “How could you stand it?” Gloria strives to explain that as she lay in bed for a week, the product of a nervous breakdown, she clung to her belief in Francisco because he asked for forgiveness.
To make amends after her recovery, Francisco offers to take Gloria on an outing of her choosing – they’ll go wherever she pleases. She suggests going to the movies or the racetrack. He turns both down ipso facto with one of the best meta-cinematic arguments in the history of film: “No, there’s nothing I hate more than the happiness of morons.” You can feel the wheels in his head turning, and then, with a sudden jolt of foot-worthy excitement, he knows exactly where they should go. Her desire has yet again become his command.
The chosen place is the vertigo-inducing bell tower of a Catholic church. And not just any church: this is the bell tower of Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, edified atop sacrosanct Aztec ruins. “Isn’t this marvellous” he asks Gloria rhetorically, “how could you compare this to a movie?” (She never did.) On top of the world, Francisco is in his element and Gloria is understandably frightened. Less understandable is why she agreed to go up there with him in the first place.
In a paroxysm of misanthropy, Francisco passes judgement on Gloria’s fellow human beings down on the street, who, granted, look like insects from where he stands: “There they are, your people… worms dragging themselves on the ground… How I wish I could squash them all with my foot!”
And then… “If I were God, I would never pardon them.” This last comment seals the deal for Gloria. She retreats into the bell tower. Francisco goes after her.
Time for irreversible chastisement: He grabs her by the neck, ready to throw her into the void. She screams her head off and fights for her life, barely managing to escape. “You idiot, go back to your people, I don’t need you!” are Francisco’s famous last words from the bell tower.
A twisted variation on the same theme, the last scene of Vertigo shows a rather possessed Scottie forcing Madeleine/Judy up the stairs to the top of the colonial bell tower, also with the intention of “punishing” her. Madeleine fears for her life, not knowing how far Scottie is willing to go with his revenge. Not unlike Francisco, Scottie is in his own way suffering from a fit of irrational jealousy, provoked by Gavin Elster (Madeleine’s “husband”) outdoing him in the moulding of Madeleine: “He made you over just like I made you over, only better. Not only the clothes and the hair, but the looks and the manner and the words…” Add to that the fact that Elster actually “possessed” her in a way Scottie never did: “You were his girl, huh?” – which Madeleine does not deny. And just as his contempt for her is about to climax, Scottie admits how much he loves her and kisses her with the same kind of irrational fervor often displayed by his forebear Francisco. Scottie and Madeleine’s reconciliation is within grasp, but alas, a nun shows up and startles Madeleine, who takes a couple of steps back and plummets into the void. The end.
Scottie didn’t kill Madeleine but in fact did; when Francisco shot Gloria, he didn’t kill her but part of her died. Two sides of the same mirror. If Hitchcock was not influenced by, let alone consciously emulating Buñuel’s “simple” Mexican film, this may well be the equivalent of Elster assuring Scottie that Madeleine had “never heard of Carlotta Valdés”, even though she was unashamedly reenacting Carlotta’s distinctive quirks and suicidal lure at every opportunity.
Gloria’s account of her life with Francisco ends with the incident at the bell tower. If we prioritise film grammar over motivational reasoning (aka wishful thinking), we technically have no objective proof that this happened quite as Gloria described, or that it even occurred at all. Is it possible that she concocted some parts in order to vilify Francisco in Raúl’s (and our) eyes? Is it unconscionable to even fathom that possibility in the #MeToo era? If Gloria did indeed embellish her story, shouldn’t we approach it as a courageous act of creative resistance on her part? Within the highly restrictive and suffocating Mexico City society in which Gloria can find no solidarity from her husband, mother, priest, or even the butler, it would make sense for her to resort to her imagination in order to shape the narrative and powerfully affect Raúl (and us). In achieving so, she has a better chance of improving her situation.
As much as one can apply the term “objective” in cinema to the filmmaker’s omniscient point of view (Buñuel’s), as opposed to a character’s subjective telling of events (Gloria’s), by the end of Gloria’s account most charges against Francisco are speculative. He can only be objectively accused of scheming behind Raúl’s back to steal his fiancée away from him. And mind you, he did not act alone. Gloria was more than complicit, from her reciprocal flirting in church to the explosive kiss in the garden. At that point in the story, moralistic qualms aside, what we actually saw was an independent woman exert her will by choosing Francisco over Raúl, rather than repress her own desire by imposing society’s reductive conventions on herself. But the history of cinema is littered with movies that chide women who assert their autonomy, and El is no exception. Whatever happened with Francisco, the fact of the matter is that Gloria is far from happy when she steps in front of Raúl’s vehicle. Thanks to her storytelling prowess, Raúl is sold on her story, as are we: Gloria must leave Francisco, and if she wishes to replace him with another man, it is clear who is first in line. As she is about to get out of the car, Raúl reiterates, “If you need me, you know where I live. Just call day or night, and I’ll be here.”
And how about Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo? Does she in any way assert her autonomy, or is it a case of Scottie just hopelessly manipulating her? She does, emphatically so. In the scene where she had already packed to leave town and she’s writing her farewell letter to Scottie, her mind-voice wonders, “I don’t know whether I have the nerve to try…” She indeed changes her mind, rips the letter, and makes the choice to stay, taking a huge risk for which Scottie – and the film – will call her to task at the bell tower. Back in objective-narration mode, Francisco sees Raúl drop off Gloria across the street from his house. He confronts her and calls her “a bitch”. For the first time in the movie, Gloria stands her ground against Francisco.
She has put up with his insults, humiliations, and physical abuse, but now she’s reached her limit (though curiously, she doesn’t mention his allegedly trying to kill her at the bell tower on that very same morning!). She claims she wishes she were having an affair with Raúl just to be able to spit it in Francisco’s face, and that she’s willing to do whatever it takes so as not to stay any longer with her husband. She storms out, leaving an incredulous Francisco emasculated and wallowing in self-pity. Gloria has decisively won this battle – their first outside Gloria’s head.
Despite their insurmountable class differences, Francisco seeks comfort with his butler in the middle of the night. He needs someone to love him, so he opens up his heart to Pablo. There’s always something charmingly pathetic about self-centred, upper-class movie characters suddenly realising the humanity of their domestic workers when their own lives unravel. Francisco asks him for advice: Should he kill Gloria? Pablo advises against it and remarks that el Señor hasn’t been happy since he got married. He should just kick her out and find himself another woman – there are plenty out there. But for our Knight of the Holy Sacrament, Gloria will always be “the first and last”. Francisco leaves in a haze and zigzags up the stairs, foreshadowing the last shot of the film. He parks himself mid-stairway, yanks a pole, and starts hitting rhythmically on the railings, increasing the tempo to a frenzy. The hypnotic acoustics evoke Buñuel’s beloved “drums of Calanda”, played annually in his Spanish birthplace to celebrate Christ’s Passion. Gloria is awakened and she rushes to lock her bedroom door. Her gesture is ambivalent, somewhere between self-defence and bearing no more pity for Francisco.
As with many couples, next time we see Francisco and Gloria they interact as though they hadn’t recently made their repulsion for one another abundantly clear. Francisco is flustered because of a legal dispute he’s sure to lose. He wants to write to the President seeking justice, but he’s blocked. (Incidentally, the 1952 Mexican presidential election was the last one in which women were not allowed to vote.) He asks Gloria to be at his side and she offers to write the letter for him. Francisco consents. She starts typing away and suddenly his machismo obfuscates his brain. He tells her to stop because it’s demeaning that she should have to do this for him. Then he collapses and cries in her arms.
Gloria treats him (rather appropriately) like a child, and that seems to work until the mother-virgin/whore dichotomy ever-present in Mexican culture blurs Francisco’s perception of the woman in front of him. Within seconds he goes from a submissive “I’ll do whatever you say, just don’t leave me” to reigniting his accusations concerning Raúl: “I thought you capable of everything except selling our intimacy to a stranger.”
In Gloria’s account to Raúl, we always saw Francisco imposing himself on her through verticality, abusive behavior, and punishment; therefore, she is the victim. In the rest of the film’s objective storytelling, there is verticality, but in the reverse direction: Francisco is the perpetual, suffering victim slighted by everyone, particularly his wife. “You did wrong, Gloria, very wrong!” he admonishes. Deep inside she knows she didn’t, but this is starting to wear her down. Every time she allows herself to become vulnerable, she is attacked by Francisco’s quaking psyche. Who will hold out longer? The courage she had when she told her husband she’d do anything to leave him is now gone. Gloria looks contrite, like an icon of the Virgin Mary, and I believe it is at this very moment that an idea strikes Francisco’s head with such vigour that he can no longer stand to look at her. Francisco turns his head away and marches out the door.
So what is his big idea? To sew her vagina – yes, really – with all that entails, literally and figuratively. Francisco prepares all the necessary paraphernalia to carry out a deed straight out of the Marquis de Sade’s playbook.
This is Francisco’s last refuge, since he proved incapable of wholly possessing Gloria. Now no one ever will, especially not his nemesis, Raúl. He sneaks into her room, the gaudy Art Deco ornaments echoing his warped state of mind. Francisco is incapable of rational thought even as a criminal; instead of using the chloroform tucked away in his robe, he starts tying Gloria’s hands to the bed. Lo and behold, her eyes open, she freaks out, and her screams wake up all the domestic service in the house. Francisco is himself scared out of his wits, which reveals a very different character from the one we saw in Gloria’s narrative. The assertive, dominant man whom Gloria once admired (“What I like most about you is your air of dominion, of self-assuredness”) is nowhere in sight. Post-bell tower, Francisco is a defenceless kid who cannot come to terms with his misconstrued, idealised notion of the eternal feminine vis-à-vis the complex, three-dimensional woman he married. It is incomprehensible to him that Gloria would be defined by her own changing needs and desires. When his sewing scheme fails, the crevices widen; Gloria is in overtime and Francisco’s psyche is in its last throes.
The following morning Pablo, subservient as ever, delivers the news that Gloria has escaped. Francisco pours himself a stiff drink, loads his gun, and engages in deadly pursuit, looking like a character from one of those Fritz Lang movies that inspired Buñuel to become a film director.11 He first ventures to his mother-in-law’s house, set to the exciting Vertigo-like score, but neither she nor Gloria is there. He then heads to Raúl’s place, and an Indigenous maid tells him he just missed the engineer. As Francisco hurries down the stairs, he “hears” the maid laugh at him. His insecurities have come home to roost in the form of paranoid hallucinations.
Francisco hits the street and sees the elusive Raúl at a newspaper stand. Befuddled, Francisco peers into a toy store, in a shot reminiscent of the one in Los olvidados when Pedro is approached by a pedophile, invoking a lost childhood. This moment makes me wonder what Francisco’s upbringing might have been like, for him to have turned out the way he did.
His undoing continues as he catches a glimpse of Gloria doing her makeup in a car, surely in preparation to meet her lover. In a Buñuel film sex tends to mean religion, so Francisco knows where to go. He hops in a taxi, the music intensifies, and it inevitably feels like we’re headed for a climactic Hitchcockian resolution. Francisco gets off at the Church of San Juan Bautista in Coyoacán, where the film opened, so we have come full circle. Whereas at the beginning of the film Francisco’s irrationality manifested itself mainly through falling in love with Gloria courtesy of a foot fetish, at this point he’s completely unhinged. He “sees” Raúl and Gloria step inside the church and he follows them in, gun in hand. As he is about to kill them, he realises that the couple in question are not Raúl and Gloria. He falls down to his knees at the pew and notices that Father Velasco is offering Mass at the altar. Someone coughs, Francisco turns around, and the pressure cooker that is his brain explodes.
In a series of masterful jump cuts, Buñuel and editor Carlos Savage alternate between what is happening (or rather, not happening) in the church and Francisco’s skewed perception of reality. He witnesses how everyone laughs at his expense, mocking him to no end.
And then, the last straw: Father Velasco joins in the ridicule. Et tu, Brute? Francisco runs to the altar keen on strangling Father Velasco before his congregation. A few men come to the priest’s rescue and, like a veritable Saint Telemachus, Father Velasco asks them to spare his friend. The camera dollies out, detaching itself from the gladiatorial circus wrought by Francisco.
Francisco’s hallucinations in the church bring to mind another film that exquisitely treads the thin line between rationality and irrationality: The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976). It’s hard to know if Polanski – yet another filmmaker whose work often needs to be separated from his actions – was directly influenced by El. In his review of The Tenant, renowned critic Vincent Canby might as well have been referring to Buñuel’s film: “That The Tenant works so well is because it’s not strictly about madness, though that is its narrative form. It’s about emotional isolation that has become physical. The forces that occupy Trelkovsky’s mind were invited in by him….”12 In the case of El, Francisco has invited sexual repression, a dogmatic approach to religion, and his culturally biased assumptions about women, a hodgepodge that both defines him and makes him irresistible for Buñuel’s entomological delving and the audience’s voyeuristic delight.
The epilogue of El states the melodramatic obvious: Raúl and Gloria are back together. Her highly engaging narrative, whether entirely true or not, accomplished its goal. Gloria is free from a man who is either abusive and riddled with mental issues (in her subjective account) or who is an immature, self-centred toddler turned zealous would-be murderer, equally riddled with mental issues (in the objective account). In either case, good riddance from “El”, the prototype of the male species in every misogynous culture.
Francisco is now secluded in a monastery in Colombia, where Raúl and Gloria pay a visit on one of Raúl’s business trips abroad. They are not alone: with them is a child named Francisco. It is implied that he might be Francisco’s biological son. As a bonus, it is not unseemly to speculate that Gloria might have gotten a substantial amount of money from her former husband, who doesn’t need his material possessions anymore. “He behaved so well towards us when he left the hospital,” Raúl tells the Father Prior of this monastery. For her part Gloria asks if Francisco will be allowed to join the order, and Father Prior replies that it is impossible, alluding to his mental state. Then he suggests they say hello in person, but Gloria and Raúl abruptly decline, in theory for Francisco’s sake. The monk insists: Francisco is beyond good and evil; he is “out of this world, his great faith is his shelter against the past.” Still no, thank you, and they get on their way.
Father Prior checks on Francisco, who is by himself in the courtyard. Francisco asks about “the engineer and…” (he cannot bring himself to pronounce Gloria’s name), having seen the visitors standing by the window, and asks if the child was theirs. Father Prior confirms his suspicions. This is a little victory for Francisco, irrational as it may be. For him the offspring proves that he wasn’t as perturbed “as they said” (who’s they? Gloria and Raúl, or everyone?), and that time has proven his point. In short, he believes the child is old enough to be the product of Gloria and Raúl’s imagined affair prior to her leaving Francisco. The irony, of course, is that when Father Prior was startled to learn that the boy’s name was Francisco, he asked if this was Raúl’s son, and Raúl got flustered and radically avoided the question.
Be that as it may, paternity is a moot point in a monastery that for Francisco serves the dual purpose of refuge for his soul and lunatic asylum. He asserts that the past is dead and that it is within these walls that he has found peace at last. Father Prior recommends he continue with his pious readings and leaves. In the last shot of the film, enticingly composed by Buñuel and Gabriel Figueroa, Francisco zigzags towards an archway in the distance, evoking the earlier scene where he meandered up the stairs in his house and started playing the “drums of Calanda.”
There is more to this shot than what meets the eye: Buñuel himself plays Francisco the-Franciscan-friar as he is headed towards the deep dark hole.13 Along the same existential lines, in the opening scene of The Phantom of Liberty Buñuel plays another Franciscan friar, this one summarily executed by a Napoleonic firing squad.
“In a mad world, only the mad are sane,” says the androgynous fool Kyoami in Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985), appropriating not only Shakespeare’s King Lear but also Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “To be sane in a world of madman is in itself madness.”14 In that spirit, El is a paradigm of a film that neurotically embodies male confusion with regard to knowing what to make of women. It is confusion steeped in cultural acceptance and, worst of all, in ignorance and bias that stem from lack of curiosity. Aside from being a source of inspiration for Vertigo and an uncanny film to revisit in the #MeToo era, the humble triumph of Buñuel’s film is that if we engage with it like an irrational dream that forces us to wake up in a cold sweat, it provokes us into discerning nasty little aspects of ourselves that can lead to life-altering behavioural changes. It might have not had that effect in Buñuel’s own life – who knows – but El’s artistic legacy is to challenge the latent “El” in every man and help us understand the women who still have to resort to all kinds of creative strategies to overcome misogyny in the surreal labyrinths of their daily existence.
- Kevin Thomas, “Premiere of ‘Life is Beautiful’ Opens AFI Fest,” The Los Angeles Times, 22 October 1998 ↩
- Anonymous, “Great Artists Steal,” Utah Valley University School of the Arts, 7 November 2018 ↩
- Hussein Ibish, “Male hysteria in the bell tower: Buñuel’s El as the primary source for Hitchcock’s Vertigo,” Ibishblog, 20 July 2011 ↩
- Sight & Sound contributors, “The 100 Greatest Films of All Time,” British Film Institute, 8 September 2020 ↩
- John Baxter, Buñuel (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994), p. 227. ↩
- Ian Mantgani, “10 Great Films That Influenced Alfred Hitchcock,” British Film Institute, 11 August 2016 ↩
- Francisco Aranda, Luis Buñuel: A Critical Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1976), p. 248. ↩
- Anonymous, “The Surreal World: Mexico,” Cakeordeathsite, 9 July 2019 ↩
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2 (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019) ↩
- Francisco Sánchez, Siglo Buñuel, (México: Cineteca Nacional, 2000), p. 172-173. ↩
- Ruth Brandon, Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945 (London: Macmillan, 1999) ↩
- Vincent Canby, “The Screen: Roman Polanski’s The Tenant Arrives,” The New York Times, 21 June 1976 ↩
- MFA, “En torno a Luis Buñuel: Todo sobre la vida y obra del realizador – Buñuel actor” (México) ↩
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (University of Chicago Press, 2014) ↩