In Mexico, while working in conditions bordering on anonymity, Buñuel saw himself creating films within the institutional limitations of the country's film industry, his hands tied by the latter's commercial and ideological demands. However, immediately after Los olvidados (1950) Buñuel became a prominent figure in Mexican cinema as well as in the artistic and literary worlds of Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Before his arrival in Mexico in 1946 as an exile and émigré, the presence of his work was ephemeral but stunning. During his visit to Mexico City in 1938, a showing of Un chien andalu preceded André Breton's lecture in El Palacio de Bellas Artes. The film made a vivid impression on prominent figures of the Mexican artistic and literary world, including the poet and film critic, Xavier Villaurrutia, as well as cinematographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who was Sergei Eisenstein's assistant during the Soviet director's failed Mexican film project.
Contrary to those who predicted Buñuel's failure in Mexico,1 Álvarez Bravo envisioned Buñuel performing an essential function, "[t]he task of shaking up our values, stimulating our consciences and of delivering his vision of the Americas and of Mexico." UNESCO's recent addition of Los olvidados to its World [End Page 91] Heritage List endorses the words of the Álvarez Bravo, whose creative conception of Mexico is closer to the "down to earth images" of Buñuel's films Los olvidados, Subida al cielo, El río y la muerte and, especially Nazarín, than to the aestheticizing vision of his former collaborator, Eisenstein. This creative conception also closely resembles the films of the "classic" Mexican cinema of El Indio Fernández-Figueroa. The latter, working with Buñuel, has left us a cinematographic portrayal of Mexico allied with the vision of Álvarez Bravo and Juan Rulfo.
The Buñuel who returned to the cinema with his first two "assigned" Mexican films was well below the level of the director who had previously raised himself to the first rank of world directors. One need only compare Buñuel's Gran Casino (1947) and El gran calavera (1949) with other films that premiered around the same time: Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (1946), Vittorio de Sica's The Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thief (1948), Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947), John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1947), or, returning to Mexico, El Indio Fernández's Río escondido (1948). Nevertheless, once Buñuel had the opportunity to make Los olvidados (released exactly a year after El gran calavera) he rejoined the group of first rate cinematic creators. In the process he became a forerunner of both "auteur cinema" (proclaimed, a few years later, by French directors and theoreticians of the "Nouvelle Vague") and of "Third Cinema" that emerged in Latin America and the so-called Third World countries in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
While El gran calavera enjoyed commercial success, making it possible for producer scar Danciger to allow Buñuel to make Los olvidados with almost total artistic freedom, the latter film played in theaters for only six days after its première.2 This is an indication of the challenges Buñuel faced while working within the limitations of Mexico's film industry. Limitations which, thanks to his creative genius and transgressive disposition, Buñuel, managed to evade to a large degree. In the process, the Spanish director gave Mexican cinema some of its greatest masterpieces while leaving in all of his assigned films (or, as he liked to say, his "bread and butter pictures") the mark of his creative vision.
Critics have not sufficiently emphasized (nor have I in my previous books) that, from his first Mexican film in 1946, Buñuel collaborated with a group of first rate Mexican writers: Mauricio Magdaleno, Juan de la Cabada, José Revueltas, and Emilio Carballido.3 These four were socio-politically "committed" artists. Juan de la Cabada and José Revueltas were closely but problematically (given their opposition to Socialist Realist dogma) identified with the Mexican Communist...