March 14, 2011

Susana (1951)

The year of 1949 was an important one for Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, as it was the year of his first commercial success, "El Gran Calavera". It was his first real hit after 20 years of exile, failed projects and commercial flops. The success of "El Gran Calavera" allowed Buñuel and producer Óscar Dancigers to make anything, and the result was 1950's "Los Olvidados", a masterful work that portrayed the cruel brutality of the life of children in Mexico City slums. Unfortunately, the audience's reaction to the film was far from warm, and earned them threats of censorship and even expulsion from the country. A couple of years later, opinions about the film would change and "Los Olvidados" would earn its status as one of Buñuel's masterpieces, but before that happened, the exiled filmmaker had to return to the craft of potboilers for hire. "Susana" was the first of these films, a film he later would describe as "a perfectly routine film about which I've nothing to say". Well, not to contradict the master but, there certainly are things to say about it.

Also known as "Susana (Carne y demonio)" (name that when translated, gives the film its English title, "The Devil and the Flesh"), the movie is the story of Susana (Rosita Quintana), a young woman who escapes from women's reformatory during a stormy night, and arrives to the ranch of Don Guadalupe (Fernando Soler), looking for shelter. Deceived by Susana's innocent looks, Doña Carmen (Matilde Palou) decides to give her shelter and employ her as a maid. Susana takes full advantage of this chance for her own benefit and quickly begins to exercise control over every male in the ranch, creating chaos and discord amongst them thanks to her tempting good looks and wild seductive charm. From the ranch's foreman Jesús (Víctor Manuel Mendoza), to Don Guadalupe's son and heir Alberto (Luis López Somoza), everyone is fighting to win Susana's favors, bringing the ranch to chaos and unrest while Doña Carmen remains naive about it. However, Susana's ambitions get higher when she puts her ambitious eyes on none other than Don Guadalupe himself.

Based on a story by Manuel Reachi (itself inspired by 1929's film "The Squall") and adapted to the screen by Jaime Salvador and Buñuel himself, "Susana" is at first sight a predictable rural melodrama, not too different from those that were popular in the Mexican film industry during the 40s and 50s. However, on close examination, it is more a subversion of the genre's conventions and a strike full of irony (uninspired but irony nonetheless) against traditional social conventions. Every archetype of Mexican rural melodrama is represented here: the womanizing foreman, the strong patriarchal figure, the scholarly young man; even the superstitious old maid and the sacrificed mother are here, and all are pitted each other by the figure of Susana, whose cunning and ambition are only matched by her beauty and her unbridled sexuality. For Buñuel, the apparent calm of the bourgeois household is so fragile, that all it takes is a no-nonsense woman like Susana, modern goddess of discord, to bring out the worst of each member of the family and destroy their hypocrisy.

Working with a low budget and on an extremely tight schedule, Buñuel crafts his film with an acute economy of elements, but with an effective narrative sense that still manages to showcase his very own sensibilities and fetishes. The seductress Susana, constantly adjusting her clothes to show more skin, is the channel the director employs to make his statement: in a sexually oppressive society, sex can become a quite effective weapon. While such topic may sound like the perfect theme for a steamy erotic drama, Buñuel's eye is not so much on exploring the hot details of Susana's voracious sexuality, but more on the destructive yet strangely comical effects it causes on the family members, making the film take a more farcical tone. This handling of the theme of a mischievous stranger disrupting a bourgeois household makes "Susana" a virtual descendant of 1932's "Boudu sauvé des eaux", although Buñuel's view is certainly less polished this time than Renoir's film. Unfortunately, Buñuel's caricature lacks the strength and boldness of his better known output.

Acting is effective, and while not exactly extraordinary by any means. Argentinian actress Rosita Quintana plays sultry temptress Susana, and she gives her character a wild energy, strong attitude and sly malevolence that truly make Susana an unforgettable character. Given the fact that she was working with a walking stereotype, it's safe to say that Quintana may had done wonders with a better developed character. The same could be said of Fernando Soler, whose dignified presence and strong yet subtle delivery add a lot of humanity to his role. If there's someone who really connects with the audience, that is Don Guadalupe, and a lot of that is because of Soler's work. As the naive Doña Carmen, Matilde Palou is quite good, though not on the level of Soler. The fact that she plays another underwritten character doesn't help, though she does shine in the climatic scene. As Felisa, the old maid, María Gentil Arcos is actually funny, with her overacting being enough to play on the farcical tone of the film, but not enough to be a bother.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn't that lucky, and while Víctor Manuel Mendoza is not downright bad (just simply average), the performance by Luis López Somoza as the young Alberto is painfully bad. A troubled and emotional character with many chances to be exploited gets wasted by a wooden actor with an almost mechanical delivery and incapable of showing any emotion. Nevertheless, as atrocious as it is, López Somoza's acting not something that could make the film unbearable by any means. In fact, "Susana" is a quite entertaining film despite its obvious shortcomings (low production values and average quality acting) and its greatest sin is perhaps, that the envelope is not pushed too far: it is a subversive parody on the rural melodrama, but somehow, the film lacks teeth. Too unconventional to be fully enjoyed (Susana as a character is hard to like, and the exaggerated tone of the film isn't well developed), yet too bland to be a full-fledged farce, Buñuel leaves "Susana" as a rough sketch of certain themes he would explore later in his career.

Taken as another rural melodrama (and thanks to Quintana and Soler's popularity), the film was another success that saved Buñuel's career from returning to oblivion again. Critical reception wasn't as generous, specially those who did see the genius in "Los Olvidados" and were expecting another film of the same caliber. However, it wouldn't be fair to dismiss "Susana" as a cheap potboiler done for the money (even if that's exactly what it is), as the film has enough elements to make for an interesting and entertaining viewing for a fan of the surrealist master. Buñuel's touches are everywhere, and shades of his posterior work can be seen all over it (as written above, it is literally like an unfinished sketch of things to come). In the end, "Susana" proves that even Buñuel's potboilers had a very distinctive soul of their own.


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