Carlos Saura pays an indulgent tribute to the greatest of all Spanish film directors, Luis Bunuel, in this capricious, fitfully entertaining extravaganza. Buffs will appreciate the in-jokes and references to works by the surrealist master, but for the non-aficionados the film has little to offer.

Carlos Saura pays an indulgent tribute to the greatest of all Spanish film directors, Luis Bunuel, in this capricious, fitfully entertaining extravaganza. Buffs will appreciate the in-jokes and references to works by the surrealist master, but for the non-aficionados the film has little to offer. Fests will be eager for a pic stuffed with cinematic riches, but it’s a shame Saura took it all so seriously; a little more of Bunuel’s subversive humor would have gone a long way.

It’s best to forget dates and times while watching this film. In what appears to be the present day, a producer pitches Bunuel a new project — a most un-Bunuel like project involving the search for a priceless, long-lost table once owned by the legendary King Solomon and now, supposedly, hidden somewhere in the city of Toledo. As envisaged, the production sounds and (in a brief black-and-white imagining) looks like the sort of thing Fritz Lang might have made in the silent era, or perhaps like the “Indiana Jones” franchise of the 1980s.

The actor portraying “old” Bunuel, El Gran Wyoming — in reality, an iconoclastic artist well known in Spain for his savage irony and wit — looks startlingly like the great director toward the end of his life.

In his hotel room, Bunuel begins to imagine the proposed film. He goes back to a time, at the beginning of the 1930s, when a younger Bunuel (Pere Arquillue) and his friends, artist Salvador Dali (Ernesto Alterio) and poet Fernando Garcia Lorca (Adria Collado) were young, ambitious and eager to take on the world. At this early stage , Bunuel had only made two films, “Un Chien Andalou” and “L’Age d’Or,” both in collaboration with Dali (who complains the filmmaker denied him proper credit); yet a waiter who serves the three on a terrace in Toledo recognizes Bunuel and raves about much later films like “Viridiana” and “The Exterminating Angel.”

Gradually, the three friends embark on the search for the missing table. They become the heroes of the film unfolding in Bunuel’s mind, an odyssey that involves strange encounters and the surreal entry into time and space derived from some of Dali’s most famous (later) paintings. Unfortunately, these scenes, while imaginatively designed, are stodgily handled by Saura. Pic lacks the needed devil-may-care spirit, and the somber mood of many sequences is at odds with Bunuel’s own sly wit.

However, there are some vivid moments, including one memorable, Dali-inspired scene in which, on a beach beside a gentle sea, a boy touches the edge of the water and then literally lifts the sea off the land as if it were a sheet he’s rolling back to reveal the detritus on the sea bed. Some scenes conjure up Bunuel’s approach to cinema. When young Bunuel, in a hotel room, hears sounds of love-making coming from the next room, he’s startled to discover it’s a couple dressed as nuns. There’s a funny moment when a bishop says that his favorite Bunuel film is “The Milky Way,” one of Bunuel’s most anti-clerical works. On another occasion, a film critic berates the director for his bad pictures, citing “The River and Death,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Tristana.” The discomfited Bunuel is relieved when two men in white arrive to drag the obviously deranged reviewer back to the padded cell where he belongs.

These and other moments are fun, but they’ll mean nothing to audiences unaware of Bunuel’s work, and that’s the problem with marketing the film internationally. How well is Lorca, the gay poet murdered during the Spanish Civil War, remembered outside Spain today? Yet many key scenes are given over to him and his poetry.

Though finely acted, magnificently designed and technically pristine, “Bunuel and King Solomon’s Table” ultimately disappoints because, in attempting to emulate Bunuel’s style, Saura loses his own voice.

Bunuel and King Solomon's Table

Spain-Germany-Mexico

Production

A Filmax presentation of a Rioja Films (Madrid)/Centre Promotor de la Imaige (Madrid)/Castelao Prods. (Madrid)/Road Movies (Berlin)/Altavista (Mexico City) co-production. (International sales: Filmax Intl., Barcelona.) Produced by Ferran Llagonera, Julio Fernandez. Executive producer, Jose Antonio Romero. Directed by Carlos Saura. Screenplay, Saura, Agustin Sanchez Vidal, with the collaboration of Jean-Claude Carriere.

Crew

Camera (color), Jose Luis Lopez Linares; editor, Julia Juaniz; music, Roque Banos; production designer, Luis Ramirez, based on designs by Jose Hernandez; costume designer, Concha Marti; sound (Dolby Digital), Pierre Lorrain; associate producer, Montserrat Bou; casting, Elena Arnau, Josep Oriach. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Masters), Sept. 7, 2001. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Old Luis Bunuel - El Gran Wyoming
Young Luis Bunuel - Pere Arquillue
Salvador Dali - Ernesto Alterio
Fernando Garcia Lorca - Adria Collado
Ana Maria de Zayas - Valeria Marini
Carmen/Fatima - Amira Casar
David Goldman - Jean-Claude Carriere
Bishop Avendana - Armando de Razza

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