Celluloid Overjoyed: Caught Hell from Bunuel

by Deanna McMillan

Shown at Chicago’s Portage Theater in 35mm last month, Luis Bunuel’s El (1953) remains one of his most difficult to find films. The Northwest Chicago Film Society’s capsule review quotes Bunuel, who compares his leading man in the film to an insect. That leading man (Arturo de Córdova) played the role of an abusive husband to great effect, lending no credence to the director’s buzzing assertion of insignificance.

Because what the film does best, and it may have been one of the first to do this in such brutal fashion, is reflect the experience of abuse victims: being isolated from loved ones, having the abuser talk to trusted friends and family before the abused has a chance to complain, gaslighting, parroting the standard line about loving too much. (Or, as a college friend of mine and I constantly joked, “I only hit you because I love you, baby.” Which rang all too true in our tiny Tennessee town.) I left the theater so shaken by what I’d seen; it accurately reflected my own experience in abusive relationships, as well as abuse I’d witnessed as a child.

I can only speculate as to why this film in particular, out of Bunuel’s weighty oeuvre, remains unavailable in the United States and is rarely shown in revival houses. It’s never seen a DVD release, and even VHS copies are scarce.

Though here it is on YouTube, in rather poor quality!

Despite the subject matter, it’s a beautiful example of how Bunuel seamlessly integrated surrealism into an almost mainstream film. The effect is disorienting, just like the abuse on screen. In particular, there’s a scene in which the abuser frantically looks for his wife, assuming she’s run away with her former fiance; as he walks around the neighborhood, numerous men who look exactly like her old flame pass and he doesn’t notice. I think even some of the abuse scenes were intended to be surreal, though they seem so authentic.

A film that I saw at the Portage Theater in Chicago back in August, Yasujiro Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind, predates El by five years. Yet like El it deals with domestic violence, and also like El it is difficult to find in the US, regardless of cinephilic interest in the rest of the director’s work. Even with as violence-obsessed as our culture is, we have managed to wash these unpleasant, honest representations of abuse from our collective version of world film history. As the exceptions proving the rule, the few films made prior to 1970 that are most often discussed–Gaslight, La Strada, A Streetcar Named Desire – treat domestic violence with kid gloves (even though, for the record, I adore all three).

So what I would like to find out is this: How many other “great” directors have their most difficult-to-watch films ignored in this country? And what can we do, besides uploading subpar copies online, to make sure this history is uncovered and shown? I don’t have the answers for this, but something this important calls for a solution.

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