Luis Buñuel was not only one of the world’s great filmmakers, he had one of the great careers in movie history: Beginning as an avant-garde enfant terrible, he reinvented himself as an underground auteur, and wound up a celebrated old master. For some, the heart of Buñuel’s résumé can be found in the 15-year stint when he re-established himself in the Mexican movie industry, grinding out hilariously subversive melodramas before making a triumphant return to European art cinema in the 1960s.
This nearly complete and more or less chronological retro spans the period between Buñuel’s first Mexican sensation, the quintessential third-world slum drama Los Olvidados (1950), and his last Mexican feature, the surrealist comedy The Exterminating Angel (1962), which brilliantly exaggerates Buñuel’s “bad cinema” aesthetic with a cast drawn from local telenovelas. Another example is the 1951 Susana, which radicalizes a reactionary potboiler by exaggerating its hackneyed femme fatale plot to create a one-joke parody of Civilization and Its Discontents.
Even with tonier material, Buñuel used a similar surrealizing strategy. His deadpan Robinson Crusoe (1954) precipitates an unexpected sexual subtext, while his triumphant Wuthering Heights (1954) is a blatant hacienda melodrama that camps out on poverty row before blasting into the stratosphere—a great movie that successfully travesties a great novel.