For years I’ve postponed seeing La Ilusión viaja en tranvía (Illusion Travels by Streetcar) on the supposition that, made thriftily and even half-heartedly in a few weeks, it wasn’t one of Luis Buñuel’s necessary films. I was wrong. It’s remarkable. Among the films that the self-exiled Spaniard made in Mexico during Franco’s despotic tenure in Spain (Buñuel then moved to France in the mid-’60s), Illusion contains his most brilliant mise-en-scène until Viridiana (1961), begun in Spain and smuggled to Mexico for completion—perhaps his greatest film ever. Illusion takes the appearance of a whimsical frolic; but that’s an illusion.

The film is set in modern Mexico City. It opens with an aerial panorama of the city and a voiceover narration that, we later realize, is meant to parody God, a recurrent target of ridicule for Buñuel, a Roman Catholic-turned-atheist. The narration focuses the viewer’s attention on Mexico City’s working class: “. . . Men and women press their simple everyday stories. Their words and actions are always directed towards the realization of a dream, a desire, an illusion.” It is implied, of course, that the one doing the “directing” is God himself. But the director of the film, working from a story and script by Luis Alcoriza, Juan de la Cabada, José Revueltas and Mauricio de la Serna, will tweak that proposition. He will do this by putting in charge of the main action two seemingly bumbling members of the working class.

Juan and Tarrajas work for mass transit. (Juan is a fare collector; Tarrajas, a conductor.) They have repaired their ailing workplace, streetcar #133, in a record six days, knowing that their livelihoods might depend on its resuscitation. The reaction of their traffic chief isn’t what the boys expect. This suited fellow chides them for “too much efficiency”—for fixing in six days what ought to have taken them eight days to fix. It turns out, finally, that the number of days is irrelevant because “the 133 is useless and must be dismantled.” Its extinction, apparently, has been preordained; the fact that the streetcar is back to being useable and useful is of no importance. More than the fate of a tram is involved here. The chief tells the boys: “It’s possible you’ll remain with the company. If not, you’ll be paid off.” Their efforts to save their jobs may all have been for nought even though they have successfully repaired 133. (They did this in six days; on the seventh day, they ought to have been able to rest.) Now it turns out that, no matter how much work they have left in them, the boys, like 133, may be “useless” and disposable. But more still is involved: the tyranny of company irrationality that jeopardizes many more jobs and livelihoods than just these two. The traffic chief is behaving as though he is God, but his hands are tied, too; the ultimate company decisions have been made higher up.

The boys have an immediate working-class solution to the frustration and sense of betrayal they feel: they’ll get drunk. Social companions as well as work buddies, they are further tied together by voluptuous Lupe, Juan’s heart’s desire and Tarrajas’s sister. The three of them have roles in a local theatrical piece culminating in the nativity: Juan (whose last name is Godinez) plays God, Tarrajas plays Satan and (unless my eyes deceive me) Adam as well, and Lupe plays Eve. (Realistically, Tarrajas can’t be playing both parts, as both characters seem to share the stage at the same, or nearly the same, time. However, Buñuel may be having perverse fun, as he surely is with the application of jump cuts to one of the staged scenes, the plucking of the forbidden apple. (The previous year, Buñuel used jump cuts in Él in order to poke fun at a Catholic priest in church and suggest the derangement of an onlooking parishioner.) God casts out Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they’ve chowed down an apple and done who-knows-what-else behind a front-stage giant rock. (The scene echoes the earlier one where God expels Satan from heaven, a connection that might help explain Tarrajas’s playing both parts.) However, the boys bail out of the balance of the pageant in order to get drunk, causing pandemonium in the working-class hall in their wake. (The Professor, who authored the play, angrily quips, “That’s what happens when you give God’s part to just anyone.”) The riled audience is hilariously discontent; God, at least, is needed for subsequent scenes, and without him there will be no nativity, keeping baby Jesus from seeing the light of birth. Redemption is not at hand. Most in the audience apparently believe that the show is intrinsically important. We know better. It’s Juan and Tarrajas who are important; and, unbeknownst to members of the amateur show’s audience, they share the boys’ invisible socioeconomic vulnerability. It isn’t religion that ultimately unites people, Buñuel implies—and, indeed, the difference between stage and floor visually suggests religion’s divisive capacity; rather, it’s socioeconomic circumstance that binds.

Drunkenly, the boys decide to borrow 133 for a last ride—a last hurrah for themselves, and a testimonial to their hard labor in repairing the tram. Juan is tall, slender, handsome and, with his wavy hair, a little vain, as Tarrajas is quick to point out; Tarrajas is short and stumpy. They are a little like Abbott & Costello, or Ben and Matt (Affleck and Damon, that is), and even, perhaps, in a reduced form, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—only here, belonging to the same class. By their contrast and the range of humanity this implies, the two become a combinate Everyman. Thus when they pursue their course of action by taking 133 out for a last spin, it’s our ride, too.

This last ride turns out to be an unscheduled service ride as well, as passengers routinely board what seems to them an ordinary tram. How can they know that this is the streetcar’s swan song and something of a death ride? Wanting nothing more than to get from point A to point B, do they even care that 133, which is running smoothly now, is headed for the scrap heap?

The boys, naturally, do not want to impose any fare (which would be stealing); they want the streetcar’s last run to be for “the education of the public.” Most passengers, especially those who are poor, accept this change with gratitude. Others insist on paying; not doing so, one charges, is communistic, while another condemns Juan and Tarrajas as irresponsible. A former company worker, who was fired some time ago for endangering passengers due to some illness of his, figures out what the boys have done and phones the transit company; but the company suits won’t believe him. (His “illness,” one suspects, was mental.) Among the passengers who board are members of a philharmonic orchestra, two women who have stolen the statue of a saint that they believe is capable of performing medical miracles (one notes, “We are too poor to buy miracles”), a butcher who hangs chickens in the streetcar, and a female teacher chaperoning a gaggle of schoolboys on an annual excursion. Most of the children—“kids of the Devil,” they are called—are exceptionally cruel, especially toward a hapless orphan among them. They harken back to some of the juvenile delinquents in Los olvidados (1950) and even anticipate the looting beggars in Viridiana. Yet, curiously, more harmonious moments among passengers recall (in a more raucous version) something of the communal spirit of the bus ride in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), a key Hollywood social and romantic comedy of the Depression. The sum of all these passengers is a diverse portrait of humanity. As a result, streetcar #133, already associated with humanity through the characters of Juan and Tarrajas, continually strengthens that association.

Buñuel marshals distancing techniques to develop his material as food for thought. One of these is shifts from scenes of passengers to long shots of the streetcar. Another is head-on shots of the streetcar showing Tarrajas at the wheel and Juan standing alongside him, both of them framed by the car’s square front window, creating the effect of a screen-within-the-screen. Another is the disruption of the action by conversations, for instance, the former worker’s attempt by telephone to convince the transit company that 133 is making unscheduled runs. In a makeshift lesson, the Professor explains inflation to the depot watchman: More money is in circulation in the economy; prices go up; wages are stagnant; workers get poorer, while traders and businessmen get richer. (A later scene shows the ideas of price caps and free trade colliding at a city marketplace.) Yet another distancing technique that Buñuel employs is, amidst the film’s predominant naturalism, phantasmagoric images, accompanied by deep shadows, of the bus at night.

However, the first indication of the distancing to come—strategies that encourage our alert thought and discourage our captivation by a moviegoing experience—is the title itself: Illusion Travels by Streetcar. Indeed, the title seems to point us in the direction of those areas of thought toward which the film’s subsequent distancing will also direct us. It is, of course, commonfolk who travel by tram; thus the title identifies illusion with them. Precisely what “illusion”? In the context of this particular film, there seem to be two such illusions for which the scenarists and Buñuel imply a close connection, possibly an interrelation. Both pertain to the idea of justice. One illusion is that the universe is ultimately just, because governed by a fair and benevolent God, and that the Church exists to guide individuals to their just rewards in heaven. The other illusion bolsters the first by postponing this happy conclusion beyond the term of our earthly involvement. It’s the illusion of the impartiality of capitalism. According to this film, both superstructures—religion and capitalism—proffer an illusion of justice while disadvantaging and deceiving the working and the nonworking poor. It’s no coincidence that the Professor who dissects inflation in his lecture (for that’s what it is) to the watchman is also the author of the playlet mocking biblical dogma. One of the Devil’s asides, moreover, draws into the fray Mexico’s capitalistic model, its neighbor to the north, and suggests the implicit threat by which Mexico feels compelled to adopt and adapt to this model. Satan says, “I will put on my mask to scare the atom bomb”—the U.S.’s bomb, that is, by which it ended World War II, in the process unleashing on the world a reign of terror, the always lurking threat of its power and capacity to create mayhem, that a struggling nation in such close proximity must keenly and especially feel, and to which Satan’s remark caustically refers. A later shot shows tons of sacks of U.S. corn being stored for sale in the Mexican marketplace. (1953; it could be 2003.) The poor get poorer while the rich get richer—and not just the Mexican rich. Around this the film draws the circle of religious belief, for the deeper the poverty, the further ahead justice for the poor must be pushed. God alone will set these matters right in paradise, so in the meantime, so as not to miss out, people need to harken to what the Church tells them. Buñuel implies that the “illusion” that travels by streetcar is the illusion that things will improve for ordinary people when in fact they will stay the same or get worse.

In retrospect, I am sorry to say, the blindingly white costumes that God and his angels wear in the Professor’s biting pageant evoke white America: the United States of America. That the U.S. is a paragon of neighborly concern, fairness and justice, the film implies, is another illusion.

Now I have read (in an undocumented remark on the Internet) that Buñuel neither created nor approved of the film’s title, no matter how distinct its Buñuelian sound, on the grounds that it seems to suggest that the film is, as his films tend to be, surreal. Buñuel apparently felt that his trademark surrealism didn’t leave any mark whatsoever on this particular film. I profoundly disagree. Indeed, by 1953 I greatly doubt that surrealism was a stylistic choice for the co-director (with Salvador Dalí) of Un chien andalou (1928) and the director of L’age d’ôr (1930); rather, it was his way of seeing things. Two types of mise-en-scène, exemplified throughout the film, may be identified as surreal. One pertains to shots of human beings, full of noise and animation (full of life, that is), whether in the hall where the party and pageant occur or in the streetcar. In each instance, one sees a crowd of individuals—that is to say, both the persons and the combination of these persons. The former is real; the latter, surreal. It’s an autonomous entity, and in fact more than the sum of its parts; it’s “the people”—the ordinary people who travel by streetcar. They aren’t reduced to a representation of humanity; they appear to be humanity. Buñuel probably didn’t consciously set out to make these images surreal; instead, the surrealist in him couldn’t help but make them so. The last run of 133 begins in the deep of night and continues into the next day’s light. The shots of the bus that portray it as a phantom of the night are also surreal; they impart spirit to the bus, Juan and Tarrajas, and the passengers. The religious position is that the soul of each human derives from God, and to deny God or religion is to deny humans the existence of a soul. Buñuel’s film contests this demeaning and foolish idea. Humanity’s spirituality derives from humanity’s materiality—from humanity’s humanity. The soul of each human who has a soul—the transit company suits possess no such thing—comes from the participation of these individuals in the aggregate of humanity. Most everything in this marvelous film having to do with the streetcar and its passengers is imbued with spirit, and none of this spirit owes anything to the existence of God. If it once were the case that Buñuel’s surrealism derived from his political radicalism, it’s now the case—in 1953—that his radicalism derives from his surrealism. Neither Un chien andalou nor L’age d’ôr, terrific though they might be, are visionary films; Illusion Travels by Streetcar is visionary.

It’s also very funny: a whimsical frolic. The illusion holds.

Juan is a wonderful character, tender and respectful towards his Lupita and loyal to, even when bickering with, her brother, his best friend. Carlos Navarro is fine in this role. However, Fernándo Soto is even better as the far less rigorously virtuous Tarrajas; this is a gem of a comic characterization. Lilia Prado must have been the biggest star involved, for she gets top billing as feisty (and gorgeous) Lupe despite the script’s (and her own) failure to develop the character. (The long-shot of Lupe’s closing clinch with Juan is unexpectedly charming.) A standout in the supporting cast is Agustín Isunza as Pinillos, the ailing old man who persists in trying to expose the boys’ transgression to the transit suits. The company’s obstinate deafness, while hard on Pinillos’s heart, aptly conveys the smug self-satisfaction of business.

Here is a film that hits a lot of nails on the head.




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