Guillermo Del Toro: The Professor on Luis Buñuel in Mexico

Bianca Huang

Guillermo Del Toro, otherwise known as GDT, returned this fall for his notoriously popular Master Class series at TIFF. Since last year, the king of gothic fantasy comes to visit the TIFF Bell Lightbox to lecture on a series of films that highlight a particular theme or genre. The roster of films selected always have some relevance or influence to GDT’s work. He is an auteur who needs no introduction, however if you are unfamiliar with his work, I am sure you have heard of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Hellboy (2004), Pacific Rim (2013), or Crimson Peak (2015). If your memory is failing you, I would highly suggest you watch any of his films. The Master Class series hosted by Del Toro is organized by the Higher Learning program at TIFF, which organizes complimentary screenings, events, and workshops for post-secondary students. Essentially, GDT is your film professor for the evening, which is awesome. Last year I attended Del Toro’s Gothic Master Class on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1943) and this year I enrolled in GDT’s class on Luis Buñuel in Mexico.

Today, the third and final day of GDT’s Master Class series, we are watching a double bill: Los Olvidados (1950) and El Bruto (1953). The class begins with Del Toro introducing the key themes to pay attention to, in addition to some history on Buñuel’s ideas and beliefs. He is dressed casually in a navy fleece quarter zip and denim jeans; a casual look for the professor. To the left of him is a large whiteboard filled with key themes and phrases from the past two classes. Some terms include: life-sex-death, physicality/intellect, Mexico-resurrection, and ethnology-neorealism.

I am not too familiar with Luis Buñuel’s work, other than the famed Un Chien Andalou. If you have taken any cinema studies class you might remember this surrealist classic by the striking scene of a man slicing a woman’s eye (actually a cow’s eyeball). Buñuel is regarded as one of the masters of surrealism and the subverse nature of film. The Spanish filmmaker detested religion and social conformities. Del Toro focusses on Buñuel’s filmography after a personal discovery, and “resurrection,” during his years in Mexico from 1946-1953. After witnessing the dark and disgraceful slums of Mexico City, Buñuel was inspired to tell the story of Los Olvidados, in English, The Young and the Damned. The film follows the lives of a group of juvenile criminals who struggle to survive in the streets of Mexico City. I remember GDT mentioning something striking in the introduction: “Buñuel treats poverty as a curse, a virus, and a sin –it is something that is given.” In the opening scenes of the film, a group of young boys stick together in hopes of gathering some food to eat; however, they take a dark and twisted route to get what they want. The boys attempt to steal from a blind old man crooning for change, and later they rob a cripple on the streets and flip him on his belly while they run off with his money. 15 minutes into the film, my mouth was agape in shock and disgust. Buñuel shows no mercy for the poor in his films, nor the rich. Also, one may notice the blatant Freudian influence with a surrealist dream sequence, and altered spatial reality. The audience continues to witness brutal acts of children in the face of poverty, and leaves the theatre hopeless with the infamous ending that petrified audiences in 1950. Los Olvidados was an image of Mexico City people did not want to see. Buñuel received horrible reviews after the release of the film, and it did not even last two weeks in theatres. In 2002, it was discovered that an alternate ending was filmed due to Mexico censorship urging Buñuel to re-shoot a happy, conventional ending. Buñuel redeemed himself after the film drew international attention and acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951 where he won Best Director. Los Olvidados is a beautiful yet brutal depiction of the destitute. It is real, and will not leave your consciousness to rest. As GDT notes, Buñuel is an ethnological filmmaker. “He knows that we [humans] are the best and worst thing that happened to this planet, but that’s all we have.”

The next film, El Bruto (The Brute) is a melodrama; a film that plays at a very different pace than Los Olvidados. When a group of tenants refuse to leave their homes, the wealthy and greedy landlord (Andrés Soler) teams up with his wife Paloma (Katy Jurado) and hires Bruto to halt the uprising. The second film of Del Toro’s class is more about gender relations, and sex than scenes of the poor. Imagine a telenova married Los Olvidados. El Bruto is evidently less dark and anarchist as Los Olvidados; however, it is a remarkable depiction of imperious women and misogynistic men.

Guillermo Del Toro is a masterful storyteller. He is not just a lover of film, but of literature, history, visual arts, music, philosophy, and religion. Del Toro is just as passionate about film as he is about all life’s subjects, and that is what makes him a great professor. He crafts his lectures in a way that you learn about how Freud’s ideas about hysteria and the ego intersects with dream sequences in Los Olvidados, or how animals that act as biblical symbols are used repeatedly in Buñuel’s films. Del Toro enlightens the audience with such knowledge in a disarming way that leaves you feeling lucky to be amidst the professor’s presence. I would have never had the opportunity to learn about some of Buñuel’s lesser known works in such depth, and it has inspired me to watch more of his films from his years in Mexico. I look forward to next year’s syllabus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s