We tend to associate Luis Buñuel with Paris. Many of his best-known films were made in France, including ‘Un Chien Andalou‘ (1929), the surrealist masterpiece Buñuel made in collaboration with fellow-Spaniard Salvador Dali, and which saw the two artists mine their dreams for imagery derives from the very depths of their subconscious. It was France that sparked Buñuel’s career and it was also where it concluded, with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
But between Buñuel’s early days as the enfant terrible of surrealism and his autumn years directing the likes of Jeanne Moreau, the director spent 20 years making films in Mexico. Forced to flee Spain during the Civil War, Buñuel spent many years working at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and for Warner Bros. However, he soon tired of the Hollywood studio system and decided to resettle in Mexico City to start his film career afresh.
Cinema unravels the coil of time, allowing viewers to step back and glimpse the history of characters and landscapes. Buñuel’s Mexican films offer us both, but it is the latter we will be focusing on today. The films he shot in Mexico City give us the chance to explore the past of this vast city and how that past informs the lives of its inhabitants, whether they be desperately poor or discontentedly bourgeoisie
Time and time again, Buñuel shows us a city in metamorphoses, a city that is expanding and absorbing the rural fringes like a hungry giant. But even as urbanisation threatened to sweep the city’s past under the carpet, Buñuel used his camera to inspect the hidden recesses of Mexico City; to shed light on those people and places that risk being forgotten. So, without further ado, join us as we take a walk around Mexico City in the footsteps of Luis Buñuel.
Mexico City in the footsteps of Luis Buñuel
Location: Félix Cuevas 27, Tlacoquemecatl del Valle, Benito Juárez, 03200 Ciudad de México,
Perhaps the best place to start our journey through Mexico City is Luis Buñuel’s stunning home, located in one of the city’s more middle-class neighbourhoods. While Bunuel used many of his Mexican films (Los Olividato especially) to focus on the harsh reality of life in Mexico City, he never pretended to be anything that he wasn’t. As Jose de la Colina, co-author of Luis Buñuel: Don’t Peek Inside, notes “Buñuel lived like a petit-bourgeois. He wasn’t trying to pretend he was the bohemian or the misunderstood artist, nothing like that.”
The house, which is open to the public, was built in the 1950s by architect Arturo Saenz, who modelled his design off Buñuel’s student residence in Madrid, a space that hosted everyone from fellow surrealist Salvador Dali to the poet Fredrico Garcia Lorca, both of whom were close friends of Luis Buñuel.
Plaza de la Romita
Location: Cjon. de Romita 24, La Romita, Roma Nte., Cuauhtémoc, 06700 Ciudad de México
The Plaza de la Romita is a hidden oasis tucked away in La Roma, one of the busiest and most expensive neighbourhoods in Mexico City. With its ornate central fountain, this little square is wreathed by trees, offering a welcome sense of seclusion. The peaceful atmosphere in Plaza de la Romita is only emphasised by the presence of one of Mexico city’s oldest churches.
As well as once being historically significant (it was once the centre of the prehispanic pueblo of Aztacalco), La Plaza de la Romita was also an important setting in Luis Buñuel’s 1950 film Los Olivdadato. Today, it’s the perfect place to sit down, relax, and soak up Mexico City’s long history. Buñuel was fascinated by places like La Romita, neighbourhoods that were at once urban but had retained the atmosphere of small towns, where children from the city’s marginalised communities would gather to talk about their adventures, their tragedies.
Indianilla Station Cultural Center
Location: Claudio Bernard 111, Doctores, Cuauhtémoc, 06720 Ciudad de México,
But Buñuel wasn’t only interested in exposing Mexico City’s dark underbelly; he was also keen to capture the vitality of the metropolis and was adept at capturing the joy of its people. It is this side of Buñuel’s cinema we see in Travels By Streetcar, in which two characters take us on a tour of different parts of the city via the now-defunct streetcar system. Today, this form of transportation has disappeared, but you can still see where the tracks used to run along the city’s broad avenues.
After arriving in Xochimilco, a working-class neighbourhood that bleeds into a system of canals known as The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, the streetcar heads to downtown Coyoacá, where Frida Kahlo’s house resides. After completing several circuits of Mexico city, the streetcar ends up where it started: the Indianilla streetcar repair and maintenance yard. The yard was opened in 1890, back when the cars were pulled by horses. However, it was abandoned in 1985 after the electrified streetcars fell into disuse. Today, the space is home to Indiailla Station Cultural Center, which contains two contemporary art galleries as well as the Frida Art Object Toy Museum, which displays works by the likes of Francisco Toledo, Sergio Hernández, Brian Nissen, Luis Nishizawa, Leonora Carrington, Rodolfo Morales, and Raúl Anguiano.
Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
Location: Plaza de la Constitución S/N, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06000 Ciudad de México
In Buñuel’s 1953 film Él, Mexico City becomes somewhere to be escaped. For the film’s lead character, Francisco Galván, the city’s urbanity and threatening inhabitants stand in the way of his happiness. The Metropolitan Cathedral, located on Plaza de la Constitució, is just one of the places he seeks refuge.
Built in 1813, Mexico City’s main cathedral is a towering, opulent jewel of a thing. In Él, Francisco takes his wife into the highest bell tower, where he shows her the expanse of the city below. From there, he looks down on his fellow men and explains his disdain for them. During this key scene, the camera shows parts of the perennially crowded Zócalo
square, one of the city’s most important gathering places and an excellent place for a morning walk.
Location: Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City, Mexico
In Ensayo de un Crimen (released in English as Rehearsal
for a Crime, we meet Archibaldo de la Cruz, who, like Francisco in Él, lives a comfortable life but is strangely dissatisfied. While it is the roar of the city itself that haunts Francisco, Archibaldo is frustrated by precisely the opposite: the calm domesticity of his own home, which serves as a reminder that has not fulfilled his childhood ambition of committing murder.
At the end of both Él and Ensayo de Un Crimen, we see the central protagonist exploring tranquil environments, Francisco in the Former Churubusco Monastery, and Archibaldo in the Chapultepec Forest (or Bosque de Chapultepec) the main park in Mexico City. It is the largest urban park in Latin America and one of the oldest in the world. Like so many places in Mexico City, it originally stood on the city’s outskirts but was eventually absorbed by its urban centre. As well as featuring no less than nine museums, a zoo, and an amusement park, Chapultepec Forest is also a crucial ecological oasis and social space.