Boisterous, ebullient, warm, overflowing with humanity, Luis Buñuel’s Subida al cielo, literally, Ascent to Heaven, but known in the States as Mexican Bus Ride, is among my favorite films of his now that I’ve seen it belatedly for the first time. It isn’t as accomplished or satirically brilliant as other Buñuel films, but it’s endearing, gracious and here and there, unexpectedly, very moving. Essentially it’s a comedy, but one so elastic as to embrace two deaths, those of a young child and protagonist Oliverio’s mother.
It opens with Oliverio’s wedding in a small town that has no church and is therefore happy. But Oliverio and his bride are interrupted in the enjoyment of their honeymoon when word arrives that Oliverio’s sick mother’s health has taken a turn for the worse. They rush back home; his mother gives Oliverio her will, which stipulates that her other two sons, who are vultures, don’t get her money and that her young grandson—Oliverio’s sister is deceased—is raised by Oliverio and his wife and is provided with the chance for an education. Thus Oliverio takes off on his bus ride to get the will ratified in the nearest city.
The bus ride takes up most of the film. The bus overflows with passengers and animals. Steamy, curvacious Raquel tries to seduce the sturdy young peasant (shades of Buñuel’s later Simon of the Desert!), who nevertheless hews to his mission. Along the way there are festivities, including a celebration of the bus driver’s mother’s birthday. With his mother’s death looming, Oliverio himself (with the driver’s permission) takes to the driver’s seat so as not to lose time.
As the film unfolds, one is too engaged by the various characters to note some poignant connections, such as Oliverio’s mother’s deathbed wish to provide her grandson with the schooling she couldn’t provide Oliverio.
The final shot shows the camera rising to the sky—a reference to the close of Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio from the preceding year, but also a sign from the skeptical Buñuel—at one point he famously and slyly said, “I am still, thank God, an atheist”—that he believes that if there is such a thing as heaven, which he doubts, the spirit of Oliverio’s mother will have no problem getting in.
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