The funeral procession for Catalina passes by a naked tree. One of the many stark images featured in ABISMOS DE PASION (1954), Luis Bunuel's Mexican produced adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel, WUTHERING HEIGHTS.
Leaving aside the classic 1930's Hollywood version of Emily Bronte's Gothic Romance, it may come as a surprise that Luis Bunuel's 1954 version, set on a desert hacienda, is refreshingly free of the kind of pomp and hushed tones which can foredoom a film of a famous literary work. It stands as a work on its own and is perhaps best approached without reference to other films versions or the novel itself. Once one does reference those other texts Bunuel's personal involvement becomes the crux of the issue.
It's simply the story of the stomping, foaming-at-the-mouth madman, Alejandro, and how he manages to destroy both himself and Catalina, the women he loves. Bunuel, as a lifelong Surrealist and anarchist, stripped the story to its biological essentials: love is a dysfunction;
the local landlord is obsessed with insects while neglecting his sexually frustrated wife; Catalina (Irasema Dilian) is the convulsive masochist who wants Alejandro (Jorge Mistral) to hurt her and to make it as painful as possible. Alejandro, being a sadist programmed by bourgeois rejection, wishes her to burn forever in Hell. They don't, and can't, make love stories like this anymore.
Bunuel goes his own way, and it's the way of madness. Alejandro is not unlike Bunuel's equally crazy protagonist in his once scandalous L'AGE D' OR, which was banned by the French police during its 1930 theatrical run. In that film the antihero goes out of his way to kick a blind man, the classic symbol of helplessness. In ABISMOS DE PASION Alejandro is a home invader and tomb violator. Born to be Bad. The setting, with its pitiless desert vistas dotted by stark cacti, evokes another genre, the Western. The rough justice meted out to Alejandro as he acts out his necrophiliac obsession looks ahead to images in another film dealing with obsession and death in Mexico, the odd Western/ Noir composite, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974), directed by a master of the Western genre, Sam Peckinpah.
Catalina's ineffectual husband, as played by the Ernesto Alonso, the perverse protagonist of Bunuel's 1955 ENSAYO DE UN CRIMEN, is the ultimate smug, owning class prig. Concentrated on collecting and sticking pins into his insects, he is subtly nudged out of the compositions so that only the odd close-up of his quivering hand sticking another butterfly into his glass cases acts as a reminder that he's there to essentially perform the same function on his neurotic wife.
The film opens with images of gnarled roots over which the credits unfold, as if to illustrate that this will be an examination of the roots of sexual dysfunction. The the next shot shows birds being blown off the branches of a tall tree by blasts from Catalina's shotgun, her weapon of choice. The image of the gun toting heroine blurs her sexuality. Her masculine side expresses itself in violence just as her husband's feminine side finds expression in his sedentary hobby of decorating the villa with cabinets of pinned insects. In the midst of all this, Alejandro, who prefers to enter the villa bursting through windows rather than walking through doors, can be understood as a viable alternative for Catalina. The fact that they are from two different classes and that their bond was sealed in childhood makes their relationship a socially subversive act resulting from the developmental stage.
Bunuel plays the action in long shots which coolly analyze the symbolic nature of the drama, or shall we call it a Mexican melodrama. For example, the necropolis where Catalina is buried is photographed from the same angle as the villa and the nearby workers quarters. Life, Work and the Tomb are all given equal value. The roots in the opening image and the final shot of the metal doors clanging down effectively frame the director's "to-the-earth-we-will-return" overview. Bunuel orchestrates his grim mise-en-scene as an extremely scaled down b&w opera, and it's no coincidence that he has chosen cues from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" as an ironic musical commentary (cf. L'AGE D'OR).
ABISMOS DE PASION is no masterwork. It's not in the same league, for instance, as the searing LOS OLVIDADOS (1950). The tone is uncertain at times and the acting ranges from acceptable to mediocre. Irasema Dilian and Jorge Mistral are essentially miscast as Cathy/Catalina and Heathcliff/Alejandro, but the film still works despite that seemingly fatal flaw. It's Bunuel working with a text in which the Surrealists found a compelling spirit (he collaborated on a shooting script in 1931) and he has remained faithful to that spirit and to himself. It's possible for someone to know nothing about Luis Bunuel and his career and still enjoy the film as a Latino retelling of Bronte's popular classic. The signature Bunuel wicked humor is there, but one must read against the grain to fully appreciate it. A fascinating example of how Bunuel, the culture jumping auteur, can adapt a well known literary work from another culture and make a personal film out of it.
The above review is my contribution to the Bunuel Blogathon at www.flickhead.blogspot.com/
(C) Robert Monell, 2007