Unlike William Wyler’s inferior 1939 film adaptation, Luis Buñuel’s Abismos de Pasión is more than a literate extrapolation of Emily Bronte’s gothic masterpiece Wuthering Heights, which certainly must count as one of the five greatest novels of the English language. Though not overtly surreal, Buñuel’s minor classic is fraught with the kind of feverish contradictions typically heir to his cinematic dogma. Critic Manny Farber observed in his eulogy for Val Newton (published in The Nation back in April of 1951) how Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man gives “the creepy impression that human begins and ’things’ are interchangeable and almost synonymous and that both are pawns of a bizarre and terrible destiny.” Farber felt the Surrealists had never been able to transform the psychological effects of their dramas into a realm of the non-human but, four years later, Buñuel would accomplish something similar with his very Latin rendition of Bronte’s classic. The film’s dreary exteriors (the trees without leaves, the buzzards on constant alert) evoke a landscape of spiritual unrest, a breezy gateway between the living and the dead. While the film arouses the dreaminess of the original text, death signifies more than the lead couple’s transcendence of the flesh—it’s also a fascinating wish fulfillment.
Alejandro (Jorge Mistral) returns to the home of his bastard youth, only to butt heads with butterfly-killer Eduardo (Ernesto Alonso), the man who married his adopted sister Catalina (Irasema Dilián). Bronte’s daring use of first person and flashback storytelling makes Wuthering Heights a precursor of sorts to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, a quintessentially American saga that speaks similarly of the horrors of one family’s demise and the spiteful legacy it leaves behind. Those unfamiliar with Bronte’s text should be forewarned: Buñuel begins somewhere in the middle, and as such the backstory is liable to confuse. Perhaps, then, the film’s tragic flaw is that there’s no real sense of past or, at least, distance from that past. In turn, Alejandro’s thirst for revenge feels aimless though the film’s Latin flavor has a way of explaining (if not wholly excusing) the heated pitch of the characters’ emotions. Buñuel subtly pits the proletariat Alejandro against the bourgeois Eduardo, whose animal-loving sister, Isabel (Lilia Prado), looks to tame Alejandro. That the characters spend so much time walking up and down hills and stairs calls attention to the film’s dreary setting as a limbo between heaven and hell. When Catalina’s brother Ricardo (Luis Aceves Castañeda) shoots and kills Alejandro as he descends toward Catalina’s corpse, Buñuel both ushers the lovers into a romantic afterlife and fabulously ponders both Ricardo and Eduardo’s inability to distinguish between human beings and “things.”