Part of our ongoing From the Vidéothèque Vault series, Chris Houkal brings us Luis Buñuel’s 1953 film El Bruto (The Brute). Produced during Buñuel’s Mexican Period, El Bruto tells a complex story concerning abuses of power and the redemptive nature of love. Though not what one might expect from the surrealist Buñuel, El Bruto is fascinating in its curious mixture of genre styles.
Consensus among film ‘experts’ holds that the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s best films were made in France: treasures like Un Chien Andalou, Belle du Jour, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. There’s no denying these films are classics, and perfectly representative of his surrealist filmmaking style, but they are a mere fraction of the director’s nearly fifty year body of work.
An avowed communist, Buñuel was unwelcome in his home country following the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War. Forced to live the life of an ex-pat, he ended up performing various film-related jobs in France and the U.S. before arriving in Mexico. By chance, he arrived just as Mexico’s golden age of cinema was in full swing. He would end up contributing a total of 21 films to this great period in art before returning to making films in Europe.
Indeed, some unqualified classics were made during this time: Los Olvidados, The Exterminating Angel, and Viridiana all stem from his Mexican period. But few Buñuel fans today remember the many other films made between 1946 and 1965, a period Buñuel himself calls the beginning of his commercial filmmaking career. This is entirely ironic given that many of these films were enormous successes worldwide at the time, whereas his surreal films were, well, less so – often enough, they were banned outright.
From this period, Buñuel’s 1953 film, El Bruto (or The Brute) was nearly forgotten for many years. Its relative obscurity might be due to how hard it is to categorize: it is a sort of melodramatic neo-realist film noir-ish reimagining of the Frankenstein story. Not surprisingly, this little film will at first seem a bit of an oddity to most Buñuel fans. Melodrama is not something we typically associate with his work, but that is indeed the overall tone of this film. It works quite well as a Mexican soap opera: there’s violence aplenty, adultery, and a plethora of bizarre plot twists.
But El Bruto works equally nicely as a film noir: it’s a crime drama, there’s a big, clueless, and somehow sympathetic guy (Pedro Armendáriz) in the lead role, and a lovely femme fatale (Katy Jurado) intent on destroying him. But what positions El Bruto in the film noir genre even more is Buñuel’s use of chiaroscuro. This film looks like it could have come out of Hollywood at the height of the film noir period of the late forties/early fifties. Shadows abound, especially in one significant scene involving a mob on the hunt for El Bruto. (For more on how noir works with melodrama read this.)
Like a lot of older films (including those made in Hollywood following the introduction of the strict Hays Code in 1930) El Bruto suggests a lot more than could be shown onscreen. Take one particular love scene between El Bruto and Paloma, his patron’s wife. She’s brought him some gifts including a bag of raw meat. As the two engage in extramarital bliss, the camera zooms in on the meat sizzling away. Acts of violence are treated similarly: during the scene in which El Bruto kills Don Andres, banging his head against a large wooden table and then stomping on him. Repeatedly. We mostly see El Bruto’s vicious face, making the scene heavily dependent on some gruesome sound for effect.
If none of this sounds terribly ‘Buñuel’ to you, consider the following scenes: El Bruto’s first meeting with Don Andres – who might be his father – in the slaughterhouse where he works, which is constantly interrupted by men carrying animal carcasses between them; Andres’ father sucking tequila from Paloma’s (his daughter-in-law) finger; the first time Bruto and Paloma evince interest in each other occurs in a scene where they’re fighting over how to best chop up a slab of meat; the scene in which Paloma is clearly turned on by El Bruto’s cracking a walnut in the crook of his elbow; and finally there’s the rooster… I won’t say more about that than necessary – fans of Buñuel will immediately recognize the reference.