LACMA: Luis Bu単uel and Gabriel Figueroa


To complement LACMA’s exhibit “Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film”. LACMA’s film department has selected two programs of rarely seen films.

LACMA’s first Exhibition film series, ending on Friday October 11 with two rare- soft titles masterpieces: “Macario” and “Pedro Páramo”, looks at Figueroa’s role in shaping the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, and will be followed with six of the seven films Figueroa shot for Bunuel.

In 1938, André Breton, one of the founders of Surrealism, declared Mexico “the most surrealist country in the world.” Nearly 10 years later, the Spanish director and fellow group member Luis Buñuel reluctantly moved there.

This was in 1946, and Buñuel’s famous and incendiary avant-garde films Un Chien Andalou (codirected with Salvador Dalí), L’Age d’or, and Land without Bread were far behind him. Exiled from Europe due to the Spanish Civil War and World War II, he found himself shuttling between New York and Hollywood with little to show for his troubles. But it was in Mexico where he not only resumed his filmmaking career, but cemented his place as one of cinema’s greatest auteurs.

Of the 20 films Buñuel shot in Mexico between 1946 and 1965, seven feature Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography. It is no coincidence that many of these are considered not just Buñuel’s best films from this period, but from his entire filmography. The director who was to create such stylishly mordant 1960s and 1970s art-house staples as Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie forged his trademark style—an effortless blend of dreams, fantasies, obsessions, and outlandish behavior crisply rendered with impeccable realism and dashes of anticlerical vitriol—in such mordant, sumptuous gems as Él and The Exterminating Angel. Buñuel also looked at the desperate poverty and appalling conditions of Mexico’s poor in two classics—Los Olvidados and Nazarín.

LACMA has also selected two oddities in the Buñuel/Figueroa canon—the improbable Southern gothic La Joven and cult favorite Simon of the Desert—as part of the museum’s ongoing film series devoted to the work of Gabriel Figueroa. This series is curated by Bernardo Rondeau, assistant curator of film programs.

The accompanying exhibit, a survey of the work of Mexico’s master cinematographer, features film clips, paintings, photographs, posters and documents, many of which are drawn from Figueroa’s archive and the Televisa Foundation collections. In addition, the exhibition includes work by contemporary artists and filmmakers that draw from the vast inventory of distinctly Mexican imagery associated with Figueroa’s cinematography. On view Art of the Americas Building, Level 2
September 22, 2013–February 2, 2014

Mexico was home to a vibrant and commercially stable film industry in the early 1930s through the 1950s, thanks in part to the country’s exportation of Spanish-language films to Central and South America in the new age of talking pictures. Figueroa’s singular body of work grew through exposure to disparate influences—a stint on the set of Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que Viva México!;an apprenticeship with Hollywood cinematographer Gregg Toland; and lasting friendships with painters/muralists José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera, who collectively fostered a new aesthetic of Mexican art. The iconographic clarity of Eisenstein, the deep-focused chiaroscuro expressionism of Toland, and the monumental, rugged social realism of the great muralists can be seen in Figueroa’s films from the Golden Age. The works, however, very much can be identified as Figueroa’s own. A master of light and contrast, he shot each masterpiece in this series—whether gritty noirs or rustic period epics—with a dramatic sense of grandeur. His gallery of rough-hewn faces, arid expanses, inclement skies, and bustling processions encompass a vividly stylized panorama of the history and culture of Mexico.

Figueroa adapted to his subject matter as he was imprinting every image with his indelible signature. This is apparent in the work he produced during his prolific period, shooting melodramas of every stripe for Emilio “El Indio” Fernández (including works that cemented the place of icons of the Mexican screen such as Pedro Armendáriz, María Félix, and, in her homecoming, Dolores del Rio) or through forays with modernist director Roberto Gavaldón.

The two-part series considers Figueroa’s work with Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, the Hollywood films that the cinematographer shot over his 50-year career for directors such as John Huston and John Ford, the films of the early 1930s that spurred Figueroa and the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, and, lastly, a look at contemporary filmmakers from Mexico whose work invoke the legacy of Figueroa’s oeuvre

This series is copresented by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
Events: Luis Buñuel and Gabriel Figueroa: A Surreal Alliance

Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned)
Saturday, October 12, 2013 | 7:30pm
1950, 88 min., black and white, 35mm print courtesy of the Tim Hunter Collection at the Academy Film Archive.
Written by Luis Alcoriza Luis Buñuel; directed by Luis Buñuel; with Alfonso Mejia, Roberto Cobo, Estela Inda, and Miguel Inclán

Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s harrowing portrait of juvenile wretches in the unforgiving slums of Mexico City remains an indelible landmark of world cinema. The film was shot on location over 21 days and featured performances by many nonprofessionals. Though it was jeered initially by the local press for its negative view of Mexican society, the film went on to win not only its champions but also a best director accolade for Buñuel in Cannes.

Mexico’s own Octavio Paz helped bring it to international attention by writing “This is not a documentary . . . Even less is it a thesis, a piece of propaganda, or a morality fable. Dream, design, chance, and the dark side life are given their due.” In the States, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael praised a particular, unforgettable sequence in the film as “the most brilliantly conceived dream I have ever seen in a film.”

Buñuel’s third Mexican feature is also his first with cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who masterfully contrasts Caravaggio-esque interiors with the sun-blasted desolation of day.

Nazarín  Friday, October 18, 2013 | 7:30pm
Luis Buñuel and Gabriel Figueroa: A Surreal Alliance
1958, 91 minutes, black and white, 35mm
Written by Julio Alejandro and Luis Buñuel; directed by Luis Buñuel; with Francisco Rabal, Marga López, Rita Macedo, and Jesús Fernández

A solemn and earnest priest is defrocked when he takes in a wounded prostitute. Dropping his vestments, he embarks on a journey through Mexico by (bare) foot. But his attempts adhere strictly to the church’s teachings— to turn the other cheek and to do good unto others—and to subside on charity don’t fare well at the spiteful hands of his fellow man.

Nazarin, largely considered one of the masterpieces of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican period, features Mexican star Marga López stars as one of Nazario’s unlikely disciples, while Gabriel Figueroa’s polished, fluent cinematography limns the cruel, depraved realities that he encounters. According to Octavio Paz, Nazario, “whose conception of Christinaity prompts him to oppose the church, society, and the police . . .  follows in the great tradition of mad Spaniards, originated by Cervantes.” The great Arturo Ripstein praised this acidic film in 1998, writing, “It’s morally flawless, ethically perfect, and blessed with a poetic power that will always sing. It’s a beautiful story with beautiful characters and situations, beautifully told. Nazarín has never failed to move me.” 

La Joven (The Young One) Friday, October 18, 2013 | 9:10pm
Luis Buñuel and Gabriel Figueroa: A Surreal Alliance
1960, 95 minutes, black and white, 35mm
Written by Hugo Butler and Luis Buñuel; directed by Luis Buñuel; with Zachary Scott, Bernie Hamilton, and Key Meersman

Despite its Spanish title, La Joven is set in the American South, bearing a passing resemblance to an exploitation picture. On an isolated North Carolina nature preserve, young and innocent Evvie finds herself in the custody of backwoods groundskeeper Miller when her grandfather passes away. As she prepares to be whisked away to the mainland and into the custody of the state, she stumbles upon an unlikely refugee: Traver, a young black man on the run after being accused of raping a white woman. What ensues is a morally complex chess game between the island’s three inhabitants, burnished by Gabriel Figueroa’s elegant chiaroscuro. 

Easily the most unexpected entry in Luis Buñuel’s Mexican filmography, with this film Buñuel crafted a biting portrait of American racism, hypocrisy, and lechery—with a script by the blacklisted screenwriter Hugo Butler, no less—and released it at the height of the civil rights movement. Largely panned in the States, La Joven was largely forgotten until a reissue in the early 1990s.

Él  -Saturday, October 19, 2013 | 5:00pm
Luis Buñuel and Gabriel Figueroa: A Surreal Alliance
1952, 92 minutes, black and white, 35mm
Written by Luis Alcoriza and Luis Buñuel; directed by Luis Buñuel; with Arturo de Córdova, Delia Garcés, and Aurora Walker

Luis Buñuel’s blackest humor is evident in this urbane melodrama. Socially respected, god-fearing Francisco is plagued by dueling anxieties: an impending lawsuit and the assumed infidelities of his beautiful new wife. A foot fetishist with a short fuse, he slowly comes apart at the seams as his jealousy overtakes his reason.  A confrontation in a quiet bell-tower also presages a similar encounter five years later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. French film historian George Sadoul likened the film to de Sade, while psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan often screened it to his students as an exemplary portrait of paranoia.

Set in a Mexico, where the rustic past rubs against the glistening present, where every interior is an art-deco wonder and a honeymoon to Guanajuato offers stunning vistas, Él foreshadows the suave surrealism of Buñuel’s second European period. With obvious lifts from his own anarchic L’Age d’Or, Él is an entrancing descent into madness rendered sumptuous by Gabriel Figueroa’s glistening cinematography.
Bing Theater | Free, tickets required | Tickets: 323 857-6010 or reserve online.

The Exterminating Angel & Simon of the Desert  October 19, 2013 | 7:30pm
1962, 95 minutes, black and white, 35mm | Written by Luis Alcoriza and Luis Buñuel; directed by Luis Buñuel; with Arturo de Córdova, Delia Garcés, and Aurora Walker
1965, 42 minutes ,black and white, 35mm | Written by Julio Alejandro and Luis Buñuel; directed by Luis Buñuel; with Claudio Brook and Silvia Pinal
When a group of elite guests discover that they are inexplicably unable to leave after a lavish dinner party, their collective adherence to social mores and conventions begins to crumble as primal savagery takes hold. The Exterminating Angel is a summation of the themes of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican period and an ornate doorway to the great European films that followed. Gabriel Figueroa’s shadowy cinematography is impeccable, especially in a justly famous sequence involving a roaming, severed hand.

The screening of The Exterminating Angel is followed by:

Simon of the Desert
Luis Buñuel revels in the penitent spirituality, profane humor, and fantastical phenomena that befall the hermit who sat atop a marble pillar in the barren Syrian Desert for 37 years. Taunted and tempted by a versatile Satan (Mexican diva Silvia Pinal), Simon is a paradigm of bizarre piety and Figueroa’s camera, returning to the rugged, open-air vistas that harken back to his work with Emilio Fernández. Inspired by chronicles of the fourth-century mystic Saint Simeon Stylites, Buñuel’s last Mexican production ran out of financing and never became a full-fledged feature. Punctuated by an abrupt flash-forward to swinging present-day Manhattan, Simon of the Desert’s find Buñuel closing his Mexican period on a surrealist high note. 

Unless already noted: Bing Theater | $10 general admission; $7 LACMA members, seniors (62+), and students with valid ID; $5 LACMA Film Club, Film Independent and AMPAS members. | Tickets: 323 857-6010 or purchase online.


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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