Streetcar Conspiracy

by Niels Strandskov

Anyone can play the devil – even myself – but give someone the role of God and you’ll always have problems.” So remarks a minor character in Luis Buñuel’s “Illusion Travels by Streetcar” (“La Ilusión Viaja en Tranvía”). And indeed, in streetcar conducting as in filmmaking, the godlike power to move people around earth at your own pleasure is a fertile ground for temptation.

The 1953 film concerns the hi-jinks that ensue when two streetcar operators in Mexico gadabout town for a last hurrah in a streetcar that is due to be scrapped. It is a few days before Christmas, and they drunkenly flee a Bible play to take the old vehicle on a cruise around town, picking up toffs and slaughterhouse workers alike for free. Things go awry when they oversleep and are forced to spend the next day ferrying insistent passengers around town.

Our heroes, the handsome fare collector Caireles (Carlos Navarro) and the grinning kobold of a driver Tarrajas (Fernando Soto) are constantly stymied by the caprices of the passengers as they attempt to safely return the streetcar to the depot. A belligerent teacher drags her students aboard for a field trip. A bunch of sneering upper-class citizens insist on boarding, and are horrified by Tarrajas’ attempt to let them on without paying. A grumpy ex-streetcar worker tries to turn them in. Taking control of the destinies of others is a messy business, Buñuel asserts. If you can look out for yourself all right, you should be happy with that.

“Illusion Travels by Streetcar” is one of Buñuel’s most conventional films. That is not to say, of course, that it is a conventional film, but merely that it hews more closely to traditional expectations of cinema than the rest of his oeuvre. The narrative is simple: There are no dream sequences or rude juxtapositions like the rotting donkeys stuffed into grand pianos in “L’Age d’or” (on which he collaborated with Salvador Dali.) And yet there is no escaping the fact that it is a Buñuel film. How many other directors, for instance, would insert a condemnation of merchants who hoard grain to drive up the price of bread into a lighthearted romp? Who else could combine heretical Catholicism, anarchic-communist political critique and an appreciation for the absurd in such a seamless way?

The Oak Street Cinema’s presentation of “Illusion Travels by Streetcar” (along with “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz,” which screened Tuesday, and “The Great Madcap” which screens Dec. 3) represents a rare chance to see some of Buñuel’s lesser-known work on the big screen. Those who take advantage of this opportunity will be rewarded with a more nuanced understanding of the range of stories Buñuel was capable of telling and the degree to which he was able to identify with the people of his adopted home of Mexico.

Illusion Travels by Streetcar, unrated. Directed by Luis Buñuel, starring Carlos Navarro, Lilia Prado, Fernando Soto. Showing Nov. 26 at the Oak Street Cinema, (612) 331-3134

Niels Strandskov welcomes comments at [email protected]