21 February 2013
Tristana a film by Luis Buñuel
During one glorious moment in cinema, Luis Buñuel made movies, grand, messy, symbolic, intense movies. Tristana, produced in 1970 and based on a novel by Benito Perez Galdos, represented Buñuel’s return to Spain after an exile of many years. A European co-production, it starred Franco Nero (the Italian “it” boy of the moment), Catherine Deneuve (already an international superstar who had most recently brilliantly acquitted herself in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour) and the incomparable Fernando Rey who for a short time in the 1970s played characters who were the personification of sophisticated evil from The French Connection to Buñuel’s films The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire.
Certainly the fact that the story of Tristana can be related briefly does in no way diminish its depth or deception.
Tristana (Catherine Deneuve), a budding post-adolescent, has just lost her mother whose last wish was that she live under the guardianship of the well-respected Don Lope (Fernando Rey). Tristana represents the pinnacle of beautiful innocence to Don Lope; a Madonna to be set upon a pedestal by him, her self-proclaimed adoptive father. But Don Lope has a weakness, and it is beautiful young women whose youth and beauty rejuvenate his aging decadence. Seducing her under the guise of protecting her, he dictates every moment of her life, forbidding that she go out unless accompanied either by him or his maid, Saturna. Inevitably the real world intrudes during one of her chaperoned walks when she meets the handsome Horacio, a painter. As they fall in love, she becomes bolder in her life with Don Lope, eventually breaking with him entirely to leave with Horacio. Aware that she is damaged goods, she refuses to marry him but when, struck by what may be a fatal illness, she demands that she be returned to Don Lope’s house to die. But, alas, she doesn’t. Her disease is cured when her leg is amputated; her body now reflecting the damage he did to her soul.
Buñuel always used a great deal of religious and political symbolism in his stories and Tristana overflows with both the obtuse and the obvious. As in most Buñuel films, the themes of corruption and moral decay interweave the characters and the plot. Favorite targets of religion, sexual perversion and politics are thinly veiled in a story that could be placed anytime during the Franco era – pre, post or during the civil war.
But perhaps, if one is only allowed one theme, it might be hypocrisy. Don Lope, under the guise of the protection of Tristana’s virtue deflowers her innocence; declaring her unfettered and in command of her own free will, he keeps her under lock and key; an alleged socialist, he mocks those who fight the Guardia Civil in the streets; disdainful of the rich only until he becomes rich himself; despising the church throughout life, it is to the church that he turns in death. Don Lope is a warrior in the battle between good and evil, but he is the soldier who represents evil in all its forms whether banal or direct.
Couched within the hypocrisy and evil lies innocence as personified by Tristana because even after she has been ruined by Don Lope, she maintains her self-knowledge and truth. It is this righteous innocence that prevents her from marrying Horacio for she is well aware that she is damaged goods in the eyes of God, a God who allowed this destruction. Interestingly, her loss of innocence does nothing to the purity of her soul as regards her love for Horacio. When, however, she becomes gravely ill, she returns to Don Lope, leaving the man who loves her soul for the man who destroyed her innocence. It is at this point that roles reverse and it is Don Lope who becomes captive and begins looking for answers from the God he never acknowledged. He is left only with priests who don’t battle for his earthly soul at their weekly card games, they crave only his material wealth.
As mentioned earlier, Buñuel’s films were often crammed with symbols and obscure references and one would have to be a student of such things to catch them and attach meaning (better to watch Bergman films of the 50s and 60s for a refresher course in filmic religious symbolism), but suffice it to say that the ringing bells, the bell clapper in the shape of Don Lope’s head, and the perverted deaf-mute boy, Saturno (possibly a play on the word Satyr) have meaning if you dig deep enough. I choose not to and prefer to enjoy the film for the surrealistic journey of good and evil as it presents itself. Enjoy Tristana on any level, but certainly as a reminder that great films can be chaotic and yield as much or as little as the effort you care to put into the viewing.
Sumptuously restored by Cohen Film Collection, José Aguayo’s stunning cinematography can be experienced in its full glory as the photography and production design are characters in themselves. If you’ve never seen Tristana, go for a primer in classic Buñuel; if you have seen it in the past, go again and be reminded of how effectively Buñuel skewered religion, the bourgeoisie (still relevant especially if you saw it in during your anarchic youth), and morality. It’s messy and opaque and never boring.
Opens Friday, February 22 at the Nuart in Santa Monica for one week.