Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Subida al cielo (Mexican Bus Ride / Ascent To Heaven)

The improbable recipient of the Cannes 1952 prize for best avant-garde film, Mexican Bus Ride (or Gate To Heaven) is one of twenty films Buñuel made in Mexico between 1946 and 1964. Several started life as potboilers, several were remarkable, and most were highly independent productions (this one ran out of money before many of the planned final scenes had been shot). And none of them, Buñuel stated, contained “a single scene that compromised my convictions or my personal morality”.

Although it’s hardly avant-garde, even for 1952 (a couple of dream sequences and characteristic black humour aside) Buñuel evidently managed to enjoy himself on a project for which he had initially felt little attraction. Oliverio (Esteban Márques) is a country boy who must take the long bus-ride to the city to fetch a notary for his dying mother, whose not-inconsiderable legacy is much-contested by his three elder brothers. This being Buñuel, said journey must interrupt Oliverio’s wedding night (to have been spent on a beautiful island across the – always sexually-charged – water) and in his frustration he must contend with the advances of local bombshell and fellow passenger Raquel (Lilia Prado). He’s no lillywhite hero, though: the most coveted item of the mother’s inheritance is the house in Mexico City, and whilst the brothers gamble for it amongst themselves, it is Oliverio who in the end allows the notary, unkeen to make the trip over the mountains, to send him home with a bogus will, which he will then sign with his mother’s thumbprint after she has died. With equally casual amorality, Buñuel sends Oliverio and Raquel up the mountain to the “Gate of Heaven” where, in a terrific thunderstorm and teetering on a sheer drop, he finally gets his wedding night and she too gets what she’s after. As a stock type, Prado more than fulfils the requirements for Mexican slut, with dangerous heels and strapped ankles, tight sweater and forthright manners, and when she affords Buñuel the opportunity to combine his leg fetish with his persistent association of water and sex, by hitching her skirt indecently far up her thigh to descend the bus, the erotic charge is genuine.

The other passengers in the dilapidated vehicle provide equal amusement: the driver stops to celebrate his mother’s birthday, climbs through the window to surprise her as she pretends to be asleep, and wakes her as would a gallant lover; there’s a goat and a sheep, and a chicken trader who, as an epitome of progress, carries a handsome album of photographs of his birds (“easier than carrying real chickens”); and the human comedy busload is completed by a birth and later a death (the Buñuelianly grotesque moment comes when we are solemnly shown the dead child’s face through a window in the lid of its coffin). There is also an old man, dressed like an aristocrat but riding for free – he says he’ll pay when the government gives his land back. As usual with Buñuel, political elements create more of a frisson than a thesis, most explicitly in the character of the local candidate for senator. A lookalike for then-president Miguel Alemán, he is generally derided (and his attendant flunkey has a wooden leg or rather, a piece of wood strapped to his side with his leg bent at the knee and proudly visible), the son of a water-vendor, jumped-up to his own people and pathetic to the cityfolk.

For the real heart of the film is specifically rural, old-fashioned humanity, celebrated in the jovial atmosphere of the bus and the birthday fiesta, and accompanied by a succession of mariachi bands. The rickety old bus is contrasted with a shiny American streamliner (and the presence of Americans at the fiesta is partly due to a proud showing-off of traditional rural culture). Most explicitly, when the bus is stuck in a river, it is a child leading two oxen that retrieves it, rather than the tractor spinning its wheels in the mud nearby. That the film tails off somewhat hardly matters at all, the bus-ride simply a joyful picaresque, a formal equivalent to the unfettered, “primitive” way of life it champions.

d Luis Buñuel p Manuel Altolaguirre, María Luisa Gómez Mena sc Manuel Altolaguirre, Luis Buñuel, Juan de la Cabada, Manuel Reachi ph Alex Philips ed Rafael Portillo ad Edward Fitzgerald, José Rodriguez m Gustavo Pittaluga cast Estaban Márquez, Lilia Prado, Luis Aceves Castañeda, Manuel Dondé, Roberto Cobo, Beatriz Ramos, Manuel Noriega, Roberto Meyer, Leono Gómez, Carmelita González
(1952, Mex, 84min, b/w)
posted by tom newth at

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