The films of Luis Buñuel

Dreams play a major role in the work of the Spanish film director Luis Buñuel Portoles. Indeed, Buñuel did not just film dream sequences. Often the entire movie is a dream!

He was born in Calanda, a hot, arid town in Aragon, Spain in 1900. Despite coming from a well-off middle-class family and being educated in a Jesuit school, he renounced Catholicism at age 16 and became an anti-establishment rebel with strong Marxist sympathies.

From 1917 to 1924, he lived at Madrid's Residencia de Estudiantes (students' residences) studying a broad range of subjects from science to history.

He also had credentials as something of a tough hombre, excelling at sports like boxing and arm wrestling and - during his Paris days - getting caught up in street brawls with Fascists.

Student pranks included dressing up as a nun and winking at men on trams plus throwing buckets of water over people entering the residencia.

His campus chums included the future artistic genius Salvador Dalí and the future playwright Federico García Lorca. All three were to become Spain's leaders in their respective fields - part of the famous 'Generation of 1927'.

At this time, Buñuel favoured the poetry that Lorca had introduced him to over movies, which he saw purely as entertainment rather than a new art form or means of expression.

He also flirted with the avant-garde 'Ultraist' movement, frequenting Madrid's peñas - artistic gatherings in bars - before moving to Paris, the headquarters of the recently-formed Surrealist Group, in 1925.

Relying mainly on money from his mother, he worked as a critic spending much of his time watching movies, especially the films of Fritz Lang. Becoming an assistant to the French director Jean Epstein, he was soon ready to make a film on his own and in 1928 summoned his old friend Dalí to work on his project - Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog).

A principal aim of making the film was to gain access to the Surrealist Group, which was only possible by doing something shocking. The Surrealists' aim was to use artistic scandal to overturn the existing social order with the prevailing family and religious values their number one targets.

Un Chien Andalou looked at the dream worlds of a young couple. It was also unlike any movie made up to that time and its dramatically poor taste opening sequence led to Buñuel's admission to the inner circle of the Surrealists.

Buñuel and Dalí went on to make the longer but equally dream-like L'Age D'Or (The Golden Age) in 1930 but fell out during filming over Buñuel's desire to incorporate anti-religious themes in the film. The finished effort is much more Buñuel's than Dalí's and - as Buñuel consciously or unconsciously desired - led to a riot when it was screened in Paris.

The film starts as an apparent documentary on scorpions (!) before moving on to a group of bishops stranded on coastal rocks, plus a scene involving bandits led by the artist Max Ernst. One bishop, meanwhile, is later thrown out of a window - followed by a giraffe.

The film also follows the fortunes of two lovers (Gaston Modot and Lya Lys) who - for a variety of reasons including the sexually repressive activities of the church - find it impossible to make love.

Irrational images include peasant's horse and cart invading a party of the haute bourgeoisie, a man with a stone balanced on his head, a woman erotically sucking the toe of a statue, a chap with flies stuck on his face, and - most amusing of all - a huge cow in a ladies' boudoir.

In fact, this latter scene hints at early Surrealist cinema's vast potential for humour, which remained largely untapped until the 1960s British TV series Monty Python developed many of Buñuel's and Dalí's ideas into classic comedy. Watching L'Age D'Or now reveals it to be a clear precursor of the Pythons.

However, it was the scene where an actor playing 'Christ' goes into an (unseen) orgy and comes out minus his beard plus the final shot of a cross adorned with women's scalps that led to the director being denounced as a godless Communist and, as he later recalled, condemned to a 'lifetime of insults and threats.'

Seen today, the flickering black and white images of this film hardly shock at all. The scalps, for example, could be anything.

But in its day the movie succeeded triumphantly in the Surrealists' aim to scanDalíse polite society. It was banned after the Paris riot and was not shown commercially in France until 1981.

It also wrecked Buñuel's directorial career for nearly two decades, although he went on to make Las Hurdes (1931), also known as Land Without Bread, a poverty-stricken documentary short made in an equally poverty-stricken part of Spain.

In the mid-30s he produced several films in Spain, leaving his name off the credits because they were so commercial. These films remain so obscure they sometimes fail to appear in Buñuel filmographies.

Then came the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) in which his homeland tore itself apart in an orgy of fratricidal blood-letting. Politically, Buñuel stayed on the left while Dalí veered to the right. Lorca, meanwhile, was shot dead by far-right Nationalists in the southern city of Granada.

Buñuel worked for the left-wing Republican government during the conflict but - being on the losing side - went into exile in America. The victorious General Franco had little love for avant-garde film-makers who attended Communist Party meetings and was trying to undermine the church.

In 1942, Buñuel was working on distributing anti-Fascist films for the Museum of Modern Art in New York when American right-wingers put pressure on the museum to sack him.

He resigned, blaming his plight on Dalí's autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), which had branded him an atheist.

At this time Dalí was also in USA, earning millions of dollars from his art works under the guiding hand of his wife Gala.

Buñuel, not surprisingly, was depressed about their relative levels of success - especially when he was forced to consider working in a New York eaterie to support his family.

He was, however, able to resume his directorial career in 1947 in Mexico, working on a mixed bag of low budget films and commercial assignments none of which were specifically Surrealist.

However, it was not until a decade later when he was in his late fifties that he finally hit his stride with a series of films that, mainly made in France, were warmly welcomed by critics and audiences. His latterday collaborators included the writer Jean-Claude Carrière, the actor Fernando Rey and the producer Serge Silberman.

Viridiana (1959), a tale of a nun who gets a bitter taste of life outside her religious order, was even made in Spain under the nose of General Franco but was banned before it could be released. The Catholic Church was so incensed that Buñuel was prosecuted in Italy and was unable to travel there for fear of arrest.

It also includes the famous (or infamous) parody of the Last Supper in which a group of down-and-outs, rather than Christ and his disciples, are seated round the table.

One interesting thing about Buñuel was that despite his lifelong atheism and anti-clericalism, religion permeates many of his films. As he wrote in his autobiography: 'I'm still an atheist - Thank God!'

Simon of the Desert (1965) is a study of of St Simeon Stylites, a Christian hermit who spent his life in contemplation atop a pillar but, according to Buñuel, ended up in a New York disco.

One of Buñuel's best friends late in life was a Dominican monk with whom he shared long conversations about religion.

He also had a recurring dream in which he saw the Virgin Mary approaching him with hands outstretched. In the dream, he kneels in front of her and awakes to hear a voice professing his profound religious faith.

By this time Buñuel was free to incorporate Surrealist themes into his films again. In The Exterminating Angel (1962), he looked at a group of bourgeois guests at a dinner party who find themselves unable to leave at the end of the evening.

Belle de Jour (1967) took a look at sexual desire with Catherine Deneuve as a middle-class woman who also works in a brothel. Tristana (1970) was a study in perverted sexuality with Deneuve as a beautiful young woman at the mercy of dastardly lecher Fernando Rey.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) showed that the director had lost none of his anti-bourgeois passion in old age, although his weapon was now satire rather than a punch-up in the auditorium. Fernando Rey again led a fine cast, this time as a Latin American diplomat up to his eyes in sexual and criminal shenanigans.

Meanwhile, Buñuel's friendship with Dalí stayed - like the bishops in L'Age D'Or - on the rocks. His autobiography, My Last Sigh (1983) is full of unflattering references to the artist.

He recalled that as a young man Dalí was 'totally a-sexual' and only lost his virginity when he was bedded by his future wife.

He added that Dalí was so impractical he could not even be trusted to buy theatre tickets and was totally useless at handling money.

Buñuel also wrote fondly of his crazy days with the Surrealist Group, describing it as a 'small group of insolent intellectuals' who 'argued interminably in cafés.'

But he pointed out that although the Surrealists failed in their aim of changing the world, the artworks of Dalí, Ernst, Magritte and the others are found in galleries the world over.