December 23, 2011

El Bruto (1953)

Forced to leave Spain when Francisco Franco became a dictator, celebrated filmmaker Luis Buñuel found in Mexico a home and a new opportunity to make movies again. Nevertheless, the movies he had to do in the Mexican industry were far from the experimental surrealism of his initial output, as the Spaniard master had to learn how to make commercial films. Nevertheless, in 1950 the master would return to form with "Los Olvidados" a masterpiece of Mexican cinema that proved that the young maker of "Un Chien Andalou" was still alive and kicking. Sergio Kogan, one of the producers of "Los Olvidados", hired Buñuel to make a film for his wife Rosita Quintana, and the result was "Susana", which began a partnership between them which would also produce two more films: the urban melodramas "Una Mujer sin Amor" and "El Bruto". Starring Pedro Armendáriz and Katy Jurado, "El Bruto" is a film that, while apparently average at first, it actually has a lot of Buñuel's political ideologies hidden beneath its ordinary construction.

"El Bruto" (literally "The Brute") begins with a conflict between the poor tenants of a building and their landlord, Don Andrés Cabrera (Andrés Soler). DOn Andrés wants to sell the land, but his tenants don't want to be evicted. Their leader, Carmelo (Roberto Meyer), encourages his neighbors to fight for their rights. Don Andrés' wife Paloma (Katy Jurado) advices him to simply leave them leaderless. To this effect, Don Andrés calls Pedro (Pedro Armendáriz), a strong worker at Don Andrés' slaughterhouse who is nicknamed "Bruto". Tall and strong, but a tad dimwitted, Pedro is a loyal worker for Don Andrés, whom he considers his mentor, so he accepts the mission that his boss has given him: to scare Carmelo away. Pedro faces Carmelo and beats him, but the frail and sick Carmelo dies from his injury. Don Andrés hides Pedro in his home, where he'll face the seductive Paloma, who becomes quite interested in him. To further complicate things, Pedro will fall in love with Meche (Rosa Arenas), not knowing she's the daughter of the man he killed.

Written by Buñuel himself and his regular collaborator Luis Alcoriza, "El Bruto" is by all accounts, a fairly typical urban melodrama of passion and betrayal. Nevertheless, it's actually a multi-layered story that hides several of Buñuel's deeper and most complex idiosyncrasies. Not only "El Bruto" lets loose Buñuel's most Marxist views by having the working class Pedro serving as a pawn of the bourgeoisie, it explores the conflict of Pedro as a pawn of Paloma's desire and specially, of Pedro as a pawn of his own biggest flaws: lust and ignorance. Pedro could be a working class hero, but his sexual desire takes him first to live with a "family of leeches" (his girlfriend's family), to become Paloma's boy toy, which will result in greater problems for him when he discovers love with Meche. The love triangle between Pedro, Andrés and Paloma has certain Oedipal echoes, as its implied that Andres' tutorship of Pedro has had more to do with hidden familiar relationship rather than a purely altruist impulse.

Buñuel's work as a director is remarkable, and while the low budget is notorious, he makes the most of what he's got and carefully builds up the story, unfolding each element of the story skillfully, showing his domain of the visual narrative. The strength of "El Bruto" is in its storyline, and Buñuel gives enough space to develop the characters and enhance the story's impact. In terms of style, "El Bruto" is closer in tone and atmosphere to his 1950 masterpiece "Los Olvidados", as there's an amount of harsh realism in his depiction of life in the slums that his more surrealist pieces lack. This is not to say that the master's touches of surrealism are entirely absent, but in "El Bruto", they are more carefully concealed, kept dormant until the climatic ending, which has a pretty "Buñuelian" moment of surrealism in its epilogue. Cinematographer Agustín Jiménez offers a polished and stylish work that gives the film a noir visual look that's perfectly fitting, as in fact, "El Bruto" works as a film noir of the slums.

The cast is another of "El Bruto"'s greatest strengths, as it includes several of the best Mexican actors of all time. Leading the cast as Pedro is the legendary Pedro Armendáriz, who delivers a remarkable performance as the strong but not very brilliant hero of the film. A famous lead actor, Armendáriz plays a complex figure in "El Bruto", a pawn of forces bigger than himself, belittled by his difficulty to fully understanding his world. Pedro is not an idiot, but his naiveté and ignorance makes him someone easily manipulable. Yet as good as Armendáriz is, it is Katy Jurado whom as Paloma delivers the best performance in the film. Jurado's sensuous and voluptuous figure, coupled with her commanding screen presence makes her an ideal femme fatal, and not only shows her power manipulating Pedro, but also her older husband, Don Andrés. Played by Andrés Soler, Don Andrés is an equally complex character, on one side a ruthless businessman who cares little for the working class, yet he is also shown as a loving son and loyal friend.

This complex duality is the other running theme in "El Bruto", where nothing is really black and white. Each character in the film seems to have two sides, as if Buñuel was stating that despite the appearances, no villain is entirely bad, and no hero is entirely good. Meche, the young daughter of Carmelo, is perhaps the only character whose entirely "pure", as if she represented the grace that Pedro requires to stop being Bruto and become a full man. Once again, duality is present in Pedro as Bruto, because Pedro, dimwitted as he is, knows that Bruto is not a nice name. He is fully aware of his limitations, and begins to resent being seen as nothing more than a brute. As much as he desires Paloma's sexual favors, deep down he knows he is not seen as Pedro, but as Bruto, a thing made to be used. And this is Buñuel's at his most Marxist, as he presents the working class as a property of the bourgeoisie, represented by Don Andrés (heir of an "old money" family) and Paloma (a social climber). His awakening and quest for redemption become the core of this melodrama.

Often dismissed as being one of Buñuel's most ordinary and commercial efforts, "El Bruto" is actually one of the best movies from his Mexican output. While the film has notoriously low production values, there's a lot to enjoy in "El Bruto", as it's one of the films that most represent Buñuel's political leanings. Certainly, the film lacks the visual impact of "Los Olvidados", the charming irony of "Él" and the sharp criticism of "El Ángel Exterminador", but still, this minor gem about an oppressed man looking for his place is an impeccably done urban melodrama. In fact, this severely underrated film just proves that the world of director Luis Buñuel is stretched beyond his better known works in surrealism.


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