Él: Buñuel & Traditional Mexico’s Decline

Para la versión en español, clickea aquí

Synopsis

Él or This Strange Passion (1953) follows Francisco, a rich and sexually repressed Mexican man who becomes fixated on a woman named Gloria after seeing her during a church service. He ignores all obstacles including her fiance and marries her. As their marriage progresses, he becomes more and more possessive and violent until Gloria is finally able to escape with her ex-fiance.

As I detailed in my previous blog post on Aventurera, Mexico and the rest of Latin America’s relationship with the United States was changing fast. The US was getting more and more wrapped up in Cold War paranoia and leaving their Latin American partnerships in the dust. Without the benevolent patriarchal figure of the United States either in global politics or cinema, Mexican directors and auteurs were forced to look somewhere else.

Latin America shed its American corporatist politics and began leaning more toward economic liberalism and representative democracy and in the cinema world, they began looking toward Europe. Previously, films from the region were fluff melodramas and comedies that only addressed surface-level tensions within their society. By the 1950s, films that addressed social and psychological themes more directly and through innovative cinematic forms found a receptive audience, especially in the growing urban centers. With growing admiration for directors like Bergman and Rossellini in budding urban cinephile groups, Latin America saw a rise in both neorealist and arthouse cinema.

Luis Buñuel

This is where the internationally acclaimed surrealist director, Luis Buñuel comes in. Buñuel was born in Aragon, Spain, and while hob-knobbing with some of the greatest minds of his generation like Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca, he directed some of the most important and foundational avant-garde films. His work in Europe like L’Age D’Or and Un Chien Andalou provided the world with exciting surrealist imagery as well as fervent attacks on the Church and the bourgeois. After leaving Spain in 1937 due to the growing violence of the civil war, Buñuel bounced around the United States and France before settling in Mexico. One of his first films in Mexico, Los Olvidados, merged surrealist imagery with neorealist horrors and earned him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. 

His next important film from this era in his career is Él. While Los Olvidados focused on the troubled lives of Mexico’s poor youth, this film criticizes the toxic masculinity and repression of the Bourgeois in the country. Francisco is a repressed virgin who is trying to get his family’s appropriated land returned to him. In a post-revolutionary Mexico that is embracing more liberal politics, can this kind of man exist? To answer the question, Buñuel constructs an Oedipal tale about the fight to become a strong, traditional Mexican man and the inevitable regression of a castrated one. We are first introduced to Francisco at a foot bathing ceremony at his church and he seems unable to stop staring at the feet of the young boys. It’s clear he is fighting a battle against his own sexuality that is momentarily abated when he is distracted by the long legs of a mysterious churchgoer, Gloria. For him, she will be the key.

Él

In the face of losing his lands, untenable sexual tensions between his male servant Pablo, and his impending patriarchal duties to produce heirs for this important Mexican family, he needs a savior and he does anything to get it. A reverse Oedipal trajectory is born from this marriage. Gloria is a Madonna-like savior for him who consoles him like a child and with whom he seems to have very little sexual chemistry. The father figures in his life are summarily eliminated after his union. Raul, the ex-fiance of Gloria and Francisco’s rival is a working bourgeois man whose very existence emasculates and enrages him. Meanwhile, the priest, a kind of holy father, forbids him from acting on his gay desires. Both modern economics and traditional Catholicism are debilitating to Francisco.

In keeping with this reverse Oedipus story, Francisco becomes sexually stunted and increasingly violent. He doesn’t touch Gloria on their wedding night. Instead, he viciously interrogates her about her past with men. Then, when his servant Pablo offers him a kind of romantic confession, he attempts to go to Gloria’s bedroom but instead sits down, rips out one of the rods that hold the carpet in place, and begins hitting it against the railings at an increasing rhythm, almost as though he were masturbating. All sexual acts in the film are masked by intense violence.

Él

This violence escalates as his impotence continues. Once his jealousy consumes him, he violently warns Gloria never to give away his secrets and shoots her. She falls to the ground but realizes he was “shooting blanks”. Buñuel’s metaphor is anything but subtle. As the movie progresses, his attempts become more and more castrated. His final act of violence comes in a paranoid and dazed state in which he strangles the priest after mistaking him for Raul. This climax finally leads everyone to realize how unhinged Francisco is. The last time we see him, a now-married Gloria and Raul visit a monastery with their son, Francisco. He sees them and understands that he may have been right to be paranoid about his replacement but is now resigned to his fate. The final shot shows him zig-zagging through a corridor, almost as though he were re-entering the womb.

These Freudian images are all well and good, but what do they mean for Mexico’s broader political context? It’s important to note how often the people around Francisco, even Gloria’s own mother, excuse his actions because he comes from a respected family. On their honeymoon in his notably conservative hometown, Guanajuato, he attacks a man he believes is following him. When people come across the two fighting, they assume the other man is the aggressor and Francisco gets away with it. However, by the time he attacks the priest in Mexico City, the people are more than willing to stop him. This final blow also comes at a time when he has lost yet another lawyer in his quest to retrieve his familial land. No one is going to let him get away with this violence anymore.

Él

It’s telling that he ends up in a monastery in Colombia. The country only recently elected its first leftist president this past month. As one of the most conservative countries in Latin America, it’s the only place where Francisco would be able to find refuge. Maybe Mexico is becoming too progressive for men like him. Now untethered to this paranoid man, Gloria seems to finally be respected by the men around her. Both Raul and the priest at the monastery treat her with kindness. Previously, the people in her life had only gaslit her into believing the marriage breakdown was her fault. The nightmare is over for now. Whether men like Francisco can be safely rehabilitated and released back into society, we cannot know. For now, they will simply have to crawl back into the womb and hope that the next life will be more forgiving. 

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