Friday, January 07, 2005

Don Luis is missing!

This is a hilarious story -- turns out the ashes of the great Luis Bunuel (dead since 1983) are missing, and no one knows where they are. Suspicion centers around Father Julian Pablo Fernandez, a Bunuel co-hort and apparent family enemy, who may or may not have come into possession of the ashes with the blessing of both the late director and his wife.

The friendship between the director and the priest began in the early 1960s, after Father Julian saw Viridiana. One of Buñuel's most celebrated anti-religious films, Viridiana is the story of a novice nun who, after a series of misfortunes, pours charity on some beggars who then throw a wild party and enact a grotesque parody of the last supper. "I was amazed by the genius, poetry, sensuality, and the daring," Father Julian remembers. "I said to myself: I have to meet the man who made that."

In his memoirs, Buñuel describes Father Julian as "a modern Dominican, an excellent painter and author of two singular films". Buñuel, apparently, loved to discuss religion with Fernandez over dry martinis in a small side room where he received guests. At one of their last encounters, in hospital, Buñuel, lying with outstretched arms and tubes sticking into his wrists, joked that he was being "crucified for surrealism".

Fernandez talks vividly of his meetings with Buñuel. But one thing he refuses to discuss is his claim to have his friend's ashes, hidden in the private chapel of a Mexico City cultural centre run by his order. According to Father Miguel Concha, the centre's prior, this has been kept in a rectangular wooden pedestal beside the altar, adapted to hold Buñuel's ashes locked inside. "Julian asked the community if he could keep them here temporarily until he'd arranged a more dignified public place where people could pray to Buñuel," says the prior. "It was a big secret and we never said a word about it until now."

Both Father Miguel and Father Julian insist they saw no problem in venerating the ashes of an atheist - but then both also suggest that Buñuel, in his heart, remained true to the faith. Father Julian even describes the director's hereticism as "a bit of a pose".

Buñuel's eldest son, Juan Luis, vehemently disagrees. He finds the idea of "a Disneyland chapel with the ashes of Luis Buñuel" outrageous, and is infuriated by the suggestion that his father's atheism was skin-deep. "Who is Julian to judge a man whose whole philosophy of life can be very simply interpreted by seeing his films?" asks Juan Luis. "But what can you expect from a priest whose life revolves around social success?"

Uh, not so fast there, Juan Luis. Far be it from me to claim the old boy for Christianity -- although wouldn't it be just God's perfect joke if it were true? -- but I've long believed that the great trick of Bunuel's art is that you really can't judge his philosophy by his films, because you're never quite sure when his tongue is in his cheek.

Take the example in the story: is Viridiana really an anti-religious film? Sure, at the surface: you have this story of a very devout nun who decides to help poor and needy beggars, only to find that they're just an ungrateful lot who wreck her home. (Their drunken rampage involves a mock dinner setting of the Last Supper and a mad dance to Handel's Messiah. It's one of the greatest scenes ever filmed.) One of them even tries to rape her. Following this catastrophe, she seems to throw off her faith -- burning her crown of thorns, and deciding, in the end, to lose her virginity to her cousin Jorge.

But that's also where the trick comes in, where the movie on reflection suddenly becomes ambiguous and strange. Is Bunuel, good Leftist that he is, saying that you should have no compassion for the poor, or that poor people are by nature vulgar thugs? And, well -- are they vulgar thugs? Is he on their side or not? And when Virdiana gives herself to Jorge, she has a surprise waiting for her: the maid Rita is already there. The three sit down to a game of cards, and clearly some kind of a threesome is in the offing. There's no escaping the fact that Viridiana's face hardly registers anything like joy; she feels mocked, betrayed, as if to say: "I gave up God -- for this?"

Look, too, at Viridiana's predecessor, Nazarin, the story of a prierst who gives up everything to help the oppressed only to find that it doesn't do him a hell of a lot of good. The Catholic Church liked it so much they gave it an award, which had Bunuel's more atheist critics laughing up their sleeves. Surely, the Church had misread it, surely they had failed to see that Nazarin is a fool and Christianity is a joke. Weirdly, both views are correct, I think: Bunuel sees Nazarin as a fool with the integrity of his convictions -- indeed, in an interview he said Nazarin was "very close" to him.

The more you think Bunuel is on your side, the more he wriggles free. There's something beautiful about the fact that he's still doing it, a generation after his death.

Buñuel was famous for his pranks from childhood, all through the university days that he shared with Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, and through the rest of his life. "As I approach my final sigh I often imagine a last joke," he wrote in his memoirs. "I call together all my old friends who are committed atheists like myself and who gather sadly around my deathbed. I call in a priest and to the horror of my friends I confess, seek absolution for my sins and receive extreme unction. Then I roll over and die."

Luis, you beautiful man, I love you!

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