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El Bruto

El Bruto

By Dominic Walker • March 16th, 2011
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Mr Bongo Records 

Release date: March 14th 2011
Certificate (UK): 12
Running time: 81 minutes
Year of production: 1953

Language: Spanish with English subtitles

Director: Luis Bunuel

Cast: Pedro Armendariz, Katy Jurado, Rosa Arenas, Andres Soler, Roberto Meyer, Beatriz Ramos, Paco Martinez, Gloria Mestre, Paz Villegas, Jose Munoz, Diana Ochoa, Ignacio Villalbazo

Legendary filmmaker Luis Bunuel’s 1953 Marxist melodrama El Bruto (The Brute), re-released on DVD this March, is a witches’ brew of myth and symbolism with the objectives of social realism.

When local landlord, slaughterhouse owner and card-carrying bourgeois, Don Andrés, seeks to evict the tenants of his dilapidated building in order to sell the land, the penurious residents implore him to let them stay. Hard-nosed and self-righteous, Andrés presents a notice served by the court, to which one audacious soul retorts: “the law is for the rich!”

Inspired by his outburst, the rest of the mob pipes up- “People like him don’t care about us!”- and they resolve to defy the injustice. As one resident observes: “with all the rent we have paid you we could have bought the building by now!”

El Bruto

Who would have thought that a plot based on a small-town civil dispute could support such a thrilling film? What’s next? A barbarous Sophoclean tragedy about an overgrown hedge in suburban Surrey?

Anyway, with a vanguard of four robust men protesting the eviction, the incessantly smoking Don Andrés decides to decapitate this mob of insolent serfs by attacking or otherwise distracting its leadership, for which purpose he takes on Pedro- dubbed Bruto by his fellow workers at the slaughterhouse- for some out-of-hours employment.

The devoted Bruto- whose mother had been Don Andrés’ father’s maid, with certain implications, one suspects, for his parentage – attends to his master’s wishes like a manlier and somewhat less mentally compromised Lennie (Of Mice and Men). He is teased for his lethargic wits in some friendly repartee with workmates, and later quite cruelly by Andrés’ ferocious wife Paloma, who abuses him while clutching his bicep and devouring his shaggy chest. On the occasion of the latter she screams rape and threatens to inform her husband. In short, she’s looking for a bit of rough.

El Bruto

While Bruto goes about his obedient battering, with some egregious consequences, Don Andrés gets some clever character development, admiring punctuality, hoarding possessions and withholding the sweets (“you’ve been bad, none for you!”) much coveted by his infantilised father. The father, too, is a wicked creation, a Dickensian grotesque, jerking his angular frame about the house to nick food and hide it under his pillow (“If you don’t fend for yourself, you don’t get anything!”). Kleptomania, the film would suggest, is congenital.

The Marxist metaphorics are strong, and sometimes perhaps too strong for our sensibilities: Don Andrés’ slaughterhouse and butchery, for example, do more than merely suggest his savagery. But there are many subtler influences which contribute to the allegorical mood: some Frankenstein, a bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Pedro/Bruto) and two fascinatingly reorganised Oedipal stories (Pasolini’s Edipo Re would later use this myth to political effect, too).

El Bruto

Bruto’s conversion from unthinking lackey to enlightened proletarian is not as complete as Brecht perhaps would have liked, but that’s no bad thing in my view. As he says: “I’m a slow thinker and need help to understand things”. Intellectual epiphany is not a plausible outcome.

The film endeavours to introduce other moral ambiguities, too: some of the tenant class are patently indolent and opportunistic, while Don Andrés sometimes seems to be a conscientious manager, and is seen to dispense charity to one unfortunate wretch (whom he later insults). I suspect however that this is a trick to fog us, exposing our deeper ideological sympathies; or conversely an exercise for the critical faculties, giving us the self-congratulatory pleasure of seeing through it.

El Bruto

As it must be, love is responsible for Bruto’s (limited) redemption. In the most didactic line of the film he says, of the injury he has done to his beloved, “but that was before I knew you”. The “you” in this case specifically refers to Meche, the childlike object of his devotion; but in the symbolic matrix of El Bruto it is figuratively dilated to mean all the wronged tenants, and beyond them to the class he has betrayed. It is not Don Andrés’ power to which Bruto should supplement his own. Meche, and all that she represents, is the weakness to which he owes his strength.

The script, as all of my quotations might hint, is excellent: psychologically astute, morally nuanced, driven with tension and suspense. The performances are invariably outstanding. It is an enormously entertaining and pleasurable film to watch.

Luis Bunuel, answering a question on the movie’s melodramatic tendencies, replied: “It is what it is.” And I would have to agree. El Bruto knows what it wants to be and executes that wish flawlessly.

Dominic Walker

Dominic Walker

Dominic is an English graduate, promiscuous dilettante and epistemological liability. He likes the sentimentalisation of loathsomeness, fetishized Teutonic Romanticism, the labour theory of value and Manchester United’s transcendent Bulgarian striker, Dimitar Berbatov. He abominates Certainty, curses The Wealth of Nations, and detests only mayonnaise more than asinine bathetic turns.

His favourite kinds of film are laborious, unyielding, laboriously unyielding, anything you’ve never heard of, and pornographic. At twenty-three, his achievements include A Spectroscopic Study of the Notion of Perineum in Jane Austen’s Later-Early Period, for which he won a MOBO award, and this sentence.

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