Directed by Luis Bunuel
Written by Luis Bunuel, from a novel by Mercedes Pinto
Starring Arturo de Cordova, Delia Garces, Luis Beristain
An older man is in church at Eastertime, watching the priest perform the washing of the feet. His gaze moves from the foot being washed to the foot of a young woman seated opposite. Then it moves upwards to the woman's face. And he knows he is in love.
So begins one of Luis Bunuel's lesser known films, El.
Bunuel was one of the world's great directors. Starting with Un Chien Andalou (a joint project with Salvador Dali), Bunuel showed a talent for the bizarre and startling. He went on to direct over 30 films, all showing his surreal* imagination. Films such as The Exterminating Angel, Viridana, Belle du Jour, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgoisie are classics of film.
The man in the opening scene of El is Francisco (Arturo de Cordova); the woman is Gloria (Delia Garces). He begins a pursuit of her that is more than a little obsessive, especially when she tells him she is engaged to Raul (Luis Beristain). But that doesn't stop Francisco, who eventually wears her down so she breaks off the engagement and married Francisco.
Jump to some time later. Raul returns to the city after spending the time managing a mine, and runs into Gloria. She tells him about how horrible her marriage was. Francisco is insanely jealous and just this side of paranoid,** accusing her of having affairs -- and because of Francisco's status, others take his side. Francisco is also fixated on a legal case that drags on forever, and which he seemed to want to press despite numerous setbacks.
And when Francisco discovers Raul is back in town, he goes completely of the rails.
Arturo de Cordova does a terrific job as the paranoid Francisco. It's clear that he is a man who gets an idea into his head and cannot let it go. But he is also able to hide is manias from others so that Glora feels trapped and even begins to wonder for her own sanity.***
El is also one of his best. Of course, Bunuel himself is only known to serious film buffs these days, but anyone encountering him would probably not hear of El. It gets overlooked -- probably due to the name. Try doing a Google search for it, and you're out of luck. Even if you include Bunuel's name, it probably won't show up. "El" is just too common a word. I also note that the Criterion Collection, the repository of great films by great directors, has not yet included this in its Bunuel collection.
Hopefully, that will be corrected. It would be hard to lose a great film by a great director.
*And I mean that in the precise manner: as his collaboration with Dali attests, he was deeply involved in the surrealist movement.
**A quirk I remember well is Francisco shoving long knitting needles into keyholes because he thinks someone is spying on him. See Un Chien Andalou.
***Spoiler. I've seen some people comment that the final scene indicates that Francisco's belief in Gloria's infidelity had some basis. I disagree. Francisco believes Raul and Gloria were having an affair, but Raul was never in the same city until he spots Gloria. And it's clear they haven't met since the marriage, since Gloria tells him everything about it as they drive to her house. It just wasn't possible for them to have an affair in the time frame shown.