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Savant DVD Review

Facets / Cinemateca
1951 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 86 min. / Carne y demonio, The Devil and the Flesh / Street Date November 27, 2007 / 24.95
Starring Rosita Quintana, Fernando Soler, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Matilde Paláu
Cinematography José Ortiz Ramos
Production Design Gunter Gerzso
Film Editor Jorge Bustos
Original Music Raúl Lavista
Written by Luis Buñuel, Jaime Salvador from a novel by Manuel Reachi
Produced by Sergio Kogan, Manuel Reachi, Oscar Dancigers
Directed by Luis Buñuel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Anyone looking to see how Buñuel formulated his semi-surreal black comedy style should track down his Mexican movie Susana, from 1951. Buñuel's previous social farce El gran calavera told the tale of a wealthy man teaches his family a lesson by pretending to lose his money. Buñuel's next picture was the critically lauded Los Olvidados, a shocking near-horror movie about brutality and misery among the homeless children of Mexico City. What makes Los Olvidados tick is its liberal use of surreal imagery direct from Buñuel's experimental films of the late 1920s -- 'intellectual special effects.'

Like many of Buñuel's Mexican movies, Susana is stealth art that subverts its own genre. It's not uncommon to read reviews that don't get the joke. The film plays like a completely straight drama about a crisis in a family, a soap opera formula always popular in Latin America. But Buñuel undercuts the genre at every step, turning the show into a wicked critique of family values in a complacent society.

We know things are weird from the very start. During a violent storm, terrorized reformatory inmate Susan (Rosita Quintana) begs God to release her from her vermin- infested jail cell, and she is miraculously set free. Claiming to be running away from a bad family and attempted rape, Susana finds a welcome at the Hacienda Guadalupe, a model Mexican home. Don Guadalupe (Fernando Soler) doesn't object when his loving wife Doña Carmen (Matilde Palou) accepts Susana as the daughter she never had; although assigned servant's duties, Susana is given a room in the main house. But the new addition to the family immediately goes to work seducing both Don Guadalupe and his son Alberto (Luis López Somoza), a serious student of insects. Foreman Jesús (Victor Manuel Mendoza, of Garden of Evil) is attracted to Susana, and she to him, but she sets her sights on stealing Don Guadalupe's affections and replacing his wife. Jesús then learns that the authorities are looking for Susana, whom they consider to be a dangerous criminal.

"She's the Devil in disguise!"

Susana resembles other allegories about families shaken up by the entrance of outsiders, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini's irritating Teorema. In this parody of society manners, a perfectly decent, harmonious and clueless Mexican family is ripe for destruction by evil outside forces. Buñuel and his screenwriters are cold-blooded in their calculation. Susana obeys the conventions of acceptable commercial filmmaking while undermining the very meaning of the word 'respectable.' The family seems flawless until an intruder-catalyst reveals the superficiality of its values. Buñuel knows that his audience, and perhaps even his producers, won't realize that he's laughing up his sleeve.

To understand Susana one must realize what life is like in the stratified societies of Latin America. The middle class is so small that the gulf between rich and poor is much greater than here in the States. Owning property gives some families security and a social standing denied to the often poverty-stricken people lower on the economic ladder. In most cases, upward mobility is difficult if not impossible. Therefore the worst thing a propertied Mexican can imagine is losing one's class position. And for a girl like Susana, any means to climb out of poverty is justified.

Susana is structured like a horror movie. Susana begins in a prison hellhole, praying to the shadow of a cross on the floor while spiders and rats crawl at her feet. She begs for deliverance, and the prison bars come free in her hands. Knowing well the common superstitions of his audience, Buñuel provides the Guadalupe family with a maid who interprets everything that happens as a sign of good or evil. In this case, she's unerringly correct: at the mention of The Devil, Susana appears at the window. Bad weather and sickness in the livestock arrive with Susana, as if she were a Nosferatu- like carrier of the plague.

The Guadalupes of Susana claim not to believe in miracles, but they subscribe to the laws of property and authority. The hacienda workers defer to Don Guadalupe's unchallenged authority over their lives. Mother is the unquestioned boss over the maids and housekeepers. The fact that both Don and Dońa are benign and generous masters makes no difference. Respectable society is as superstitious about its rules and entitlements as the maid is about demons. Proprieties must be observed, because without them the illusion of society will collapse.

The beautiful Susana is everything that decent society shuns -- and secretly desires. Susana brazenly cozies up to the men-folk, using her beauty to steal a place in the family. The son Alberto falls without a struggle, infatuated with the girl who kisses him in the library. Father tries to deny his attraction to Susana -- at first suggesting that she dress more modestly -- but Susana eventually seduces him too. The rugged, handsome Jesús is crazy about the new maid, but even though Susana is attracted to him, she has no intention of becoming the wife of a lowly ranch foreman. Jesús, Alberto and Don Guadalupe all end up staring at Susana's window, none realizing that she has twisted two others around her fingers. Buñuel has a low opinion of honest romance. Susana rejects a good man that can take care of her because she's found bigger fish to fry. Jesús proves the depth of his feelings by callously informing on her, like a real Judas.

Susana may not be openly surreal, but it uses Buñuel's favorite surreal symbols. Alberto studies insects, giving the director the opportunity for a startling close-up or two. When Susana attempts to collect eggs from the henhouse, she ends up with yolks running down her naked legs, as if her 'evil' sexuality must destroy life, even in its infancy. Critic Raymond Durgnat proposes a convincing explanation for the director's insect fetish. Buñuel's intellectuals are fascinated by insects because bugs are mindless, soul-less mechanical creatures both beautiful and repulsive. Humanity might as well be a race of insects, suggests Buñuel, because no matter how much we claim divinity, we're slaves to our instincts and mechanically predictable in our actions. Susana prays to God but escapes from her cell by crawling in the mud, like a worm rising from the slime of creation. She uses an instinctual mating ritual (pulling her blouse down to expose her shoulders) and the males respond as if by a chemical reaction. She doesn't join the Guadalupe household, she infests it, knowing from the start which family member she'll have to eliminate to take over. As interpreted by Luis Buñuel, "Life will find a way" is a blasphemous way of saying "Dog Eat Dog".

At the center of the traditional Latin household is the Mother, and Susana's Doña Carmen is a paragon of traditional virtue. She's slightly shocked when her husband kisses her passionately; she's more accustomed to deriving her personal pleasure as the ama de casa. Susana wrecks the family and even usurps Carmen's position as boss of the houseworkers. Carmen eventually retaliates with a whip, something the head maid has wanted to do all along. Buñuel doesn't back off from his thesis: when he shows Doña Carmen losing control and whipping Susana, the loving mother seems transformed into a demon.

(spoiler) In Buñuel's outrageous parody of a happy ending, Susana is literally dragged away by the hair, kicking and screaming. Once she's gone, the family is able to immediately forget the harm they've done each other. Susana has proven that Don Guadalupe will stray from his wife and dismiss his most loyal employee, and that Alberto will attack his father and abuse his mother. But when the Evil Temptress goes, the curse is lifted -- the sun shines and the sick horse trots happily in the corral. Not unlike a '50s American sitcom, the family can banish its tensions simply by denying that they exist: all Evil is on the outside. The cheery ending lampoons the status quo - happiness is the exclusive birthright of those on top of the pyramid.

Facets and Cinemateca's DVD of Susana starts a bit roughly but settles into a good print of this Mexican classic. Good removable subtitles translate the clever Spanish dialogue ... at one point the maid quotes the old saying, in reference to the demonic intruder, "Raise ravens, and they'll peck out your eyes". A faint distortion sneaks into the audio now and then but is easily overlooked. No extras are included, so viewers are encouraged to reference books or read online to learn more about the wickedly funny world of Luis Buñuel. His favorite quote: "I'm an atheist, thank God."

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good -
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 1, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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