A retrospective of the works of Luis Bunuel is a central feature of this month\'s Spanish Film Festival. The curator of an exhibition on the Spanish master discusses his legacy.
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5 May 2009 - 12:32 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Luis Buñuel was a man confident in his vision as a filmmaker. He also understood the fringe in which his audience existed – when he enjoyed rare popular success in 1969 with the iconic Belle de jour, his response was “Did I do something wrong?”

Javier Espada is a man committed to not letting the legacy of Spain's greatest filmmaker fade with time. In addition to being a celebrated filmmaker in his own regard, Espada is curator of Centro Buñuel, an institution in Buñuel's home village of Calanda, dedicated to the ongoing exhibition of the surrealist masterpieces that have made Buñuel one of the most revered and original film talents in cinema history. Espada is in Sydney for the launch of Buñuel – Amigos Y Peliculas (Family And Friends), an exhibition of his photography and films, running in conjunction with the 12th Spanish Film Festival.

Not that Calanda stakes any claim to fuelling the late filmmaker's creativity (he passed away at age 83 in 1983). “Calanda was, and is, a primarily rural existence”, say Espada, via a translator during a recent visit to SBS. “It was not until Buñuel attended school in Saragoza and travelled to the cosmopolitan city of Madrid, where he attended the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, did he begin to explore his talent”. It was within the wildly fertile environment of the artist's colony known as the Residencia de Estudiantes that Buñuel would form two of the most important friendships of his life – with artist Salvador Dali and poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

It was from this melting pot of ideals and fearless visions that the short film Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog, above, 1929) was created, and surrealism was born. Using the studies of Sigmund Freud as a basis for the film's occasionally stomach-turning imagery, Un Chien Andalou became a sensation amongst the European artistic community. The opening sequence, in which a straight-razor is dragged across a woman's eye, illicits an audibly-shocked response from audiences to this day. Espada cannot overstate the film's impact enough. “Surrealism had not yet fully formed, despite some dabbling in its form by French artists. Un Chien Andalou was the catalyst that drove the movement forward.” Its power is still undeniable today, some 80 years after it debuted, but in a different sense. “It was created to impact, to shock, to define the power of film as a conduit for images”, says Espada. “Today, it is a museum piece, a work of art to be studied within the context of our broader understanding of the time.”

\"\"It was the last time Dali and Buñuel would work together (despite entering into pre-production on L'Age d'or, the 1930 film, inspired by the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days Of Sodom, that would become Buñuel's first solo project). The execution of Lorca at the hands of the dictator Franco and the influence of Dali's wife, Fundacio Gala, drove a terrible wedge between two of the most influential artists in Spain's history. “Buñuel, broke whilst in the U.S., contacted Dali, who was enjoying the high life, to ask to borrow $50. Dali reneged,” recalls Espada, indicating just how acrimonious the relationship had become. “When Dali did contact Buñuel, late in his life and via telegram, to suggest a sequel to Un Chien Andalou be attempted, Buñuel's response was 'La última agua nunca movería un molino de viento', or 'Past water would never move a windmill' ”.

Buñuel endured a very fractured relationship with his homeland of Spain. Despite being in exile following the Spanish Revolution, he contributed a little-known short film to the 1939 Paris Show, called Spain: Loyal In My Eyes. But it was not until his dramatic return to Spain in 1960, to direct the landmark film Viridiana (left), that Buñuel's impact upon the society of modern Spain became so apparent.

“The film was a sensation,” says Espada. “After only a few screenings it was barred – the cinematographer was arrested, for God's sake – and Buñuel fled the country, his film fanning zealous religious debate.” That any copies exist at all of the film – a cautionary tale about a young nun (Silvia Pinal) who spends a confronting weekend at the estate of her grieving uncle (Fernando Rey) – is an incredible feat; Espada becomes enthralled at his own retelling of the Viridiana tale. “The Vatican published an article condemning the film! All but three copies were destroyed – one was hidden in the cape of a bullfighter, who smuggled the film to France and, ultimately, into the Cannes Film Festival. There it won the 1961 Golden Palm”.

\"\"Espada's memory of his first viewing of L'Age d'or has inspired his love of and commitment to Buñuel's work for 30 years. He hopes the exhibition awakens a new appreciation of Buñuel's work with Australian audiences. “For too many years, only the minority, or the artistic community, appreciated his work”, exhales Espada, with a frustrated wave of his hand. “After he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1972 (for The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie), Buñuel was guest-of-honour at a dinner party held at director George Cukor's house and attended by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Mulligan, George Stevens, Billy Wilder, Robert Wise and William Wyler. Such was the reverence these greats had for Buñuel.” A photo of the gathering can be viewed at the Buñuel – Amigos Y Peliculas (Family And Friends) Exhibition, which was created by Espada with the full support of Buñuel's estate and which features portraits of Buñuel's family, friends and contemporaries, including Dali, Lorca and Igor Stravinsky.

Javier Espada's documentary on the life of Luis Buñuel, The Last Script, is also featured. He agrees with Buñuel's assessment of his own body of work – in its day, it was confronting and bizarre and demanding. But today, in an age of digital imagery and complex visual cues, Buñuel's work is even more relevant and, most importantly, interpretive. “What most appeals to me about Buñuel's work are his overriding themes – freedom and friendship,” says Espada. “His work may be surreal or at times difficult, but these are not difficult themes to understand. Buñuel's films are for normal people, the everyday person.”

Further reading: Luis Bunuel profile and filmography