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Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel spent the 1950s in Mexico making low-budget potboilers that had flickers of his comic touch and irreverent attitude despite working in conventional parameters. Like many great European directors who moved to Hollywood in WWII and turned budget constraints and genre tropes to their advantage, so did Bunuel find that what might be restrictions for others could actually be an advantage in his hands.
Susana was released in 1951, adapted by Bunuel from a novel by Manuel Reachi. Though on the surface it is merely a lusty melodrama, Bunuel has his impish way with the material, drawing parallels between ecstasy of the body and the spirit that exposes the dangers inherent in both while making it clear that the pleasures of the body are far more fun than the denial of the same.
The film opens in a Mexican sanitarium. Susana (the buxom Rosita Quintana) is being dragged back to her cell by the matrons who serve as her jailers. Fed up with the way they treat her, she asks God to quit toying with her and free her from her prison. As it would happen, the Supreme Being is listening, and the bars on Susana's window come lose. She escapes through the opening into the night.
Ironically, Susana's divine liberation comes on a devil's night. An out-of-season storm rages across the Mexican countryside, bringing worry to the Guadalupe family. Don Guadalupe (Fernando Soler) is watching over his prize mare, who is giving birth amidst the rain and thunderclaps. Meanwhile, his wife, Carmen (Matilde Palou), dotes on her studious son, Alberto (Luis Lopez Somoza). Though their superstitious (read: religious) maid, Felisa (Maria Gentil Arcos), warns them of the evil that is afoot on such a portentous evening, when Susana's face appears in their window, Christian generosity demands the Guadalupes give her shelter.
Only, Felisa is right. No sooner has Susana set foot in their home than the farm's foreman, Jesus (Victor Manuel Mendoza), comes in to inform them that the mare is ill and her colt was stillborn. Cue the dramatic music!
No, seriously, cue the dramatic music. Bunuel plays Susana for all its worth, whipping up a hormonal frenzy of image and sound, his fixation on Quintana's bare shoulders and heavy chest locking lips with Raul Lavista's overwrought, almost comical score. This is melodrama, and the director is going to make no bones about it. The thunderstorm gives way to a storm of a different kind when Susana arrives. Her very presence puts a sexual charge in the air. Walking past the farmhands, she brings out the wolves lurking inside them--just as Bunuel knows that the lurid interests of his audience will keep them riveted to the screen.
Plus, the plot of Susana is so ludicrous, why not go all out with it? Susana seduces young Alberto, while Jesus discovers where the girl comes from and tries to use that knowledge to have his way with her. The beefy workman ends up getting played, though, and Susana uses him to ensnare Don Guadalupe. Pretty soon, she's had both father and son, has gotten Jesus fired, and is about to unseat Carmen as the family matriarch. Only a last minute hail-mary by Jesus saves the day. As it turns out, his name isn't entirely ironic.
There's nothing subtle about Susana. Luis Bunuel's commentary isn't even layered under the surface, it's right on top. When Felisa threatens to expose Susana, the younger girl laughs at the older woman's notion of "Christian charity." Men are libidinous animals, and women are pious shrews. The social structures they string together with moral fiber are tenuous facades, easily demolished by a woman who makes no such pretense at suppressing her natural passions. Like many great satirical filmmakers, Bunuel clearly understands the visceral thrill of his medium, and so too does he expose the audience's voyeuristic desire for such squalid dramas. We cluck our tongues at the judgmental behavior while all the while judging the people in the movie, and we profess to be different while still getting our jollies from the same place they are--Susana.
The technical aspects of the DVD for Susana leave a lot to be desired. Presented in a 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio, this film has seen better days. From the get-go, there are scratches and spots on the screen, and throughout, the picture regularly grows dirty and fuzzy. Based on some of the resolution issues and some of the lines that run across the screen at various instances, I'd say this was mastered off of a VHS. Those lines look like folds in a chewed-on rental tape. (To see what I mean, check the scene with the family in their dining room in the final chapter, which the above screengrab is taken from.)
Insult to injury, the DVD doesn't even work properly. When I turned the subtitles on from the main menu, the disc got stuck on that menu, no longer responding to my remote so that I could start the movie. When I tried to select the menu while watching the movie, the film froze for a moment and then kept going forward rather than going to the menu.
The original Spanish-language soundtrack is intact. It's generally okay. It's a little fuzzy, but with decent volume levels. Not so with the subtitles (which do turn on and off, just use your remote "subtitle" button and not the main menu). They are extremely small, move fast, and there are many grammar errors and bizarre word choices.
I thoroughly enjoyed Susana. Though I am also a fan of Luis Bunuel's more challenging, surreal pseudo-sexual religious exposes, it's a hoot seeing him cut loose and have his way with more traditional B-movie fare. This early selection in his Mexican period tracks an unbalanced sexpot's influence on a pious household, watching morals and standards crumble under the heat of her passion with the director's trademark devilish glee. I'd like to give Susana a full recommendation, but given that the movie itself is kind of a lark, it makes it hard to turn a blind eye to the faults in the DVD presentation the way one might with an unimpeachable classic. Due to the poor picture quality, the glitchy disc interface, sub-par subtitles, and a complete lack of extras, I suggest you Rent It and save your pennies for the day when maybe someone releases a higher-grade Susana in a comprehensive collection of Bunuel's years south of the border.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.