Religion and Spanish Film: Luis Buñuel, the Franco Era, and Contemporary Directors

Religion and Spanish Film: Luis Buñuel, the Franco Era, and Contemporary Directors

by Elizabeth Scarlett


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ISBN-13: 9780472052455
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 12/28/2014
Pages: 210
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Scarlett is Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Buffalo, SUNY.

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Religion and Spanish Film

Luis Buñuel, the Franco Era, and Contemporary Directors

By Elizabeth Scarlett

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Scarlett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12077-2


Luis Buñuel and the Reinvention of Catholicism

While Fernando Savater proves that profound and unambiguous atheism is possible even for those culturally anchored in the Spanish tradition, Luis Buñuel's position on religion cannot be reduced to either side of the belief versus atheism/agnosticism polarity. The skeptical self overshadows the believing self, but at the same time his atheistic self is attracted to religion. Rather than abandoning or attacking Catholicism entirely, as his work progresses his movies add up to a reinvention of the Catholic for the complexities of the twentieth century. He opposed the authoritarian structure of church hierarchies, the hypocrisy of its well-fed elites, and the paralyzing effects of dogma, intolerance, and fanaticism. He favored a radical skepticism toward all aspects of the sacred, including scripture, and toward all forms of authority. This skepticism has led to the cliché of citing Buñuel, often alongside Ingmar Bergman, as avowed atheists obsessed with metaphysical concerns (Deacy 46). However, to stave off the encroachment of technology and government into the personal realm, Buñuel made a place for the religious as a site or space for the imagination, where more of what was truly human could be kept alive. What Buñuel subjects to "systematic undermining" is not Christianity as a whole (Edwards 131), but the part of it that has calcified into what Kristeva calls obscurantism, an insistence upon social codes that becomes antisocial (Need to Believe 56–57). The religious imaginary, on the other hand, is a place of endless possibility for the surreal artist who is willing to break a few sacred eggs when necessary. To obliterate the religious, particularly the mystical, the miraculous, and the fetishistic component of ritual, would be to lose entire dimensions of subjectivity and creativity. Hence, out of his closest literary precursors, Buñuel is rather closely aligned with Valle-Inclán, who mined the depths of the Catholic tradition to indulge in decadentista excesses of sacrilege and blasphemy (especially in the Sonatas). In addition, examination of his religious-themed original-scripted films illuminates many nineteenth-century literary sources, such as Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, and José Zorrilla in his magical/religious approach to surrealism.

Michael Wood has treated the subject of faith in Buñuel (spotlighting Nazarín, Simón del desierto, and La Voie lactée). For him, "another atheism" informs the works, marked by a "dark and ironic dialogue" (93). While Buñuel's atheism is not militant or goal-oriented (geared toward stamping out belief), Wood nonetheless finds that the director deals with "the lingering of faith" as an inevitable mark on the otherwise liberal mind (107). The flip side of the Spanish Inquisition is the Marquis de Sade's imagery of torture and confinement at the service of wiping out Christian morals. The point for Wood is not that Sade's victims are right to uphold their religious ethics, "but that philosophy is not everything" (95). Noting that Christian charity backfires in Nazarín and that evil proves unconquerable in Simón, Wood also signals that "heresy is deviance rather than refusal or opposition" in La Voie lactée (105). In my analysis of these films and others with original screenplays by Buñuel I take this further; the heretic Priscillian is effectively enshrined in La Voie lactée. I will also privilege the Spanish intertexts with which the films dialogue; Wood has already addressed the French and German ones. Through the alignment of marginal and maverick religiosity with freedom, Buñuel reimagines for modern times the magical-ritualistic dimension of Catholicism.

The magical-ritualistic dimension of Buñuel's perpetuation of the Catholic tradition is informed by a social consciousness akin to that of the nineteenth-century novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, whose works he adapted for the screen twice. Buñuel's Marxian and anarchist sympathies constitute a twentieth-century intensification of Galdós's Krausism (which valued collective harmony and dialogue among the different social classes). This led him to critique the church's role in maintaining the rule of the haves over the have-nots. There is an ethical dimension to Buñuel's reworking of religion, aptly studied by Ignacio Javier López with respect to Nazarín: rather than limiting the vision to a critique of the established order, it amounts to an exploration of the consequences of individual actions (522). López perceives an indifferent God in the background of Nazarín, for example, matched by the apathy in the behavior of humans toward God and each other (528). This results in a Manichaean combat between Good and Evil: "Al vivir en un mundo ajeno a la providencia, y ante el cual la divinidad es indiferente, el Bien y el Mal aparecen, no solo implicados, sino necesitados, extendiéndose a todos los aspectos de las relaciones humanas" (In a world alien to Providence, and toward whom the Deity is indifferent, Good and Evil appear not only implied but necessary, extending to all aspects of human relations, 529). The tendency of humans to choose to be kind and generous to each other when neither compelled by God nor fearful of punishment is for López a redeeming quality that arises from this Manichaean duality (532). Both the magical/ritualistic and the ethical dimensions of Buñuel's reimagining of Catholicism are set up most specifically in historical context by La Voie lactée, the centerpiece of this chapter.

Buñuel's upbringing has been treated by many sources, including the filmmaker himself, although the factuality of his memoirs needs to be taken with many grains of salt. As with James Joyce, Mary McCarthy, and Carlos Fuentes, his Catholic education produced a well of repression and resentment, but also wonder and obsession with fetishism and the miraculous. Often overlooked is the liberal education the director also received when he was removed from a Jesuit school and placed in a local public high school at fifteen. There he learned about Darwin, Marx, and Rousseau while still a teenager (Acevedo-Muñoz Buñuel and Mexico 34). As a young adult, he and his companions at the Madrid Residencia de Estudiantes venerated Toledo for its antiquity and they created an Order of Knighthood devoted to allegiance to the surviving remnants of the medieval Castilian city (My Last Sigh 71). Similarly, throughout his career, the rituals, art and architecture, theology, and history of Catholicism provided him with endless material to be subverted in Marxist/surrealist fashion. This aided him in bringing the subconscious to life. Vicente Sánchez Biosca notes, "For Buñuel Catholicism is a source of perverse pleasure; and this pleasure is nothing other than the pleasure of sin. The more imperative the rule, the more intense will be the pleasure derived from the transgression" (181). By reading the religious through all the main stages of his career, however, I believe more facets become evident. There is a place for theology in his progressive social philosophy, and for ethics in his transgression. The process of reverse catechization, of unlearning the repressive elements of Catholicism while purifying the underlying zeal for equality, love, mysticism, and redemption, takes many forms in his films. With the figure of Priscillian in La Voie lactée, he activates what Eagleton identifies as the revolutionary potential of Catholicism. The witness to an apparition in the same film utters a virtual definition of Kristeva's concept of the prereligious need to believe: "Faith must enter through the heart." Buñuel's continual return to the drumbeats of the Holy Week processions in his hometown of Calanda signals his positioning of Catholic tradition at the heart of his habitus or collective unconscious. He then redirects the march toward a twentieth-century God of artistic freedom, sexual liberation, and social revolution. Buñuel first made his martyrs of sexual repression march to the lugubrious drumbeat that he remembered from childhood. Later, as the need for belief overshadowed his rebellion against the molar structure of Catholicism, his films placed the possibility of achieving sublimation and the semiotic, oceanic state through belief alongside the pitfalls offered by organized religion of dogmatism, tradition for tradition's sake, and idolatry of simulacra.


Un chien andalou, with its dreamlike, spontaneous, and improvised construction, is far from presenting a thesis statement on Buñuel's treatment of religious themes. As a script it was a fairly even collaboration between the director and his less anticlerical friend Salvador Dalí. Dalí joined in the spirit of object sacrilege in his paintings, with work on La profanation de l'hostie concurrent with his collaboration with Buñuel. However, ten years and one Civil War later, Dalí returned definitively to his Catholic roots and preached to Buñuel to do the same (Gibson Dalí 451). We can assume the tempering effect that Dalí's influence must have played in this film and in their second and final dual effort, L'Âge d'or, upon the representation of religion (though it tickled him to play the part of a clergyman in a scene involving repression). Dalí did not wish to stray very far from the protection of the Catholic fold. For this reason he kept what was most likely his primary sexual orientation veiled for a lifetime. Finding a female partner willing to engage in practices other than intercourse was probably a key enabling factor in his remaining nominally heterosexual. Despite the pressure Buñuel exerted on his friend to conform to social standards of manliness, he soon felt either repulsed by or jealous of Dalí's wife Gala. It may be what drove them apart. Because of its singular situation as both a youthful collaboration and a formal experiment, Un chien andalou is unique in the director's canon.

Nonetheless, many hallmarks of Buñuel's lifelong devotion to religious themes emerge in his first film. The nocturnal beginning, with Buñuel himself looking up to the heavens, and introduced (as each scene was by nonsensical time markers) as "Once upon a time," has a literary ring that is unmistakably mystical in the sense of Juan de la Cruz's "Noche oscura del alma." Using the allegory of young lovers who meet at night for a secret tryst, the sixteenth-century poet positioned God in the heavens beckoning to the soul to leave its home, or body, to be joined with him in harmonious union, followed by a peaceful afterglow. Each step is related with definite erotic undertones. The celestial text to be read in the Buñuelian scene provokes violence rather than divine union, in the sense that the cloud that cuts across the moon in razor-like fashion appears to propel the entranced knife-sharpening figure (played by the director) to use this weapon to split a woman's eye in two splendidly even halves. Hence, a surreal rewriting of the topos of the nocturnal mystical union with the divine underlies the first scene, often viewed as a warning issued to the audience that what it holds sacred is about to be violated. As a substitute for the divine revelation of Spanish mysticism, the revelation that is promised to the spectators who continue to watch despite their terror is that of perceiving reality in a new way, purged of old encumbrances and enhanced by psychoanalytic theory.

The director's heavenward gaze in the first scene is repeated in the second sequence, which involves a cyclist and motorcar accident witnessed by the eventual desiring male subject and female object of desire from a window one floor above street level. The man on the balcony looks upward just before the accident that will give him voyeuristic delight in sadism, which in turn will spark him to accost the woman inside the apartment. The aggressive current in sexual behavior was receiving new emphasis from surrealists because of psychoanalytic theory. The allegory of erotic union as a vehicle for expressing harmonious fusion between the soul and God would hence be given a more violent cast that was articulated by Bataille in his perspective on erotism as the breaking down of boundaries (223). Destruction was incorporated into the fusion. Further instances of this "neomystical" subtext can be found in the relating of pleasure to pain, as when the desirous man next looks heavenward after cornering the woman and fondling her breasts, which morph into buttocks; the face he next displays is of a suffering martyr or Christ himself during Calvary (Bataille also regarded religious masochism as sexual pleasure). Dalí may be credited for the gender-transformative themes of this scene (not just the breasts-to-buttocks but also the male's mouth forming a pseudo-anus), as his inner conflict over sexual preference was primary at the time. The other trappings of mysticism, however, such as the pain-pleasure duality and violence within the erotic impulse, would follow Buñuel from film to film. When the female love object closes the door on his hand, the male assailant cringes in what appears to be both agony and ecstasy while ants encircle a stigma in the palm of his hand (the latter a favorite Dalí touch).

Buñuel's protest that the dream images of Un chien andalou are beyond the scope of interpretation and analysis belies their manifestations of personal conflicts that were crucial to each of the two collaborators as young adults. If Dalí's primary psychosexual conflict at this stage was that of sexual orientation, for Buñuel the most defining tension appears to be the struggle for intimacy versus isolation, a fundamental one for people in their twenties according to the Eriksonian theory of psychosocial stages. The male desiring subject, after being held back physically by the weight of society's repressive forces in the form of two clergymen, a piano, and a dead donkey, and subsequently blocked by the female's retreat, has his conscience wrestle outwardly with his inner demon (id), both played by the same actor. The transgressing male is placed head against the wall with arms outstretched in the form of a cross. Next it is the disciplinarian's turn to play the part of the martyr as the id empties twin pistols into his chest and he falls beatifically, only to be found as a corpse miraculously displaced into a natural outdoor setting, initiating a detective-style mystery for the passersby who happen upon him. The unexpected appearance of the corpse to a group of men who are thereupon united by a common cause may be read, neomystically, as the opposite of the resurrected Christ appearing to his followers. The final frame crowns this extensive chain of martyrdom images. The formerly unwilling woman has turned into a seductress in her own right upon finding the object of her desire (a well-heeled suitor; in psychoanalytic thinking, a good provider for the son she might have with him). When the season changes (absurdly, to springtime), both are engulfed in sand halfway up the torso in the manner of Turkish prisoners of yore. Burial in sand not only served the purpose of confining the prisoner and torturing him with relentless exposure to the sun; it staunched the flow of blood after castration in order to preserve the life of the newly created eunuch, who could then be harnessed as a slave. This concluding martyrdom scene illustrates the stagnation of the libido once it is channeled into the monogamy of marriage. Religious symbolism surfaces at every turn in the film, but primal desires subvert the possibility of harmony and serenity in the mystical union of the soul with the divine.

Hence, even a short and silent film such as this displays a rich interplay with the religious influences that were still fresh in Buñuel's mind from his Catholic upbringing, and his budding process of reverse catechization for undoing the repressive vestiges. Several scenes both parody the gestures of martyrs and mystics and invert them to stand for the struggle for gratification of the taboo drives of the id. The paradoxical pain-equals-pleasure formula of mysticism comes to signify the duality of Eros and Thanatos when libidinal energy is unleashed. The church is explicitly included among the social forces of repression by virtue of the priest-dragging scene. In the end, these forces enact a definitive martyrdom through obstructing, punishing, or channeling libidinal energy into a shadowy existence equated with castration, stagnation, and death.


Excerpted from Religion and Spanish Film by Elizabeth Scarlett. Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Scarlett. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: God and the Spanish Director 1

1 Luis Buñuel and the Reinvention of Catholicism 21

Looking Back in Anger: Iconoclastic and Anticlerical Roots 24

Catholicism Reinvented in Later Films 32

2 The Religious Genre Film and Its Discontents in Francoist Spain 63

History of the Christian Religious Genre Film 64

Preaching to the Converted: Missionaries and Apparitions of Mary 70

Lives of the Saints as Measures of Holiness and Citizenship 82

New Genres and New Wave Directors of the Sixties and Seventies 102

3 Breaking Boundaries: Post-Franco and Contemporary Directors 111

Variations on a Theme of National Identity: Reclaiming St. Teresa 114

Pedro Almodovar and the Gathering Storm 123

Postmodern Skepticism versus the Need to Believe 137

Conclusion: Religion and the Spanish Habitus 164

Notes 175

Filmography of Films Discussed in Detail 185

Works Cited 189

Index of Film Titles, Theorists, and Directors 197

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