The great surrealist, Luis Buñuel, has made plenty of famous movies every film student has heard of… but this magical little gem, made during his time in Mexico, is one of his best and least known. Atypically sweet, it reveals a compassionate Buñuel who, rather than focusing his anger on the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, gives his poor and humble protagonists a fantastical joyride they’ll never forget.
The scene is Mexico City, the time: the 1950’s. For those who grew up then and there, Illusion Travels by Streetcar is a nostalgic trip through a beloved home that doesn’t really exist anymore- not that version of it, anyway. For starters, streetcars became obsolete ages ago, replaced by a billion noisy, polluting cars and buses. The streetcar in this tale is about to be decommissioned, having been deemed old and unrepairable. No matter that the rail workers have fixed it- the bureaucrats have already declared it dead, and so it is.
If that logic feels reminiscent of Brazil, well, it is- both films satirize the ridiculousness of the modern corporate machine and how it clashes with the messy but beautiful spirit of humanity. In this case, that machine has deemed the streetcar useless, and with it, two of the workers as well: Juan and Tarrajas, who decide to take the streetcar on its last joyride (I mean, why not?)
Buñuel brilliantly uses that simple premise to hit upon his favorite themes, from religion to the economics of class, as the streetcar picks up and drops off a cross section of Mexico’s working class. Musicians, teachers, butchers, orphaned children- everyone has a story here, but for once, they’re not weighed down with Buñuel’s usual dark obsessions and moral condemnations. Instead, like his drunken protagonists, Buñuel seems to be in good spirits for once, showcasing his love for the common men and women of Mexico City with a fitting tribute we all can enjoy.
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