Asked once if he had ever been a religious person, director Luis Buñuel replied, "I have always been an atheist, thank God."

Only a handful of Buñuel's films explicitly challenge Christianity as a failure, but all of them confront society's lack of moral moorings and our overwhelming guilt when we fail to live up to its artificial moral codes. From his first surrealist film, made with Salvador Dali, to "That Obscure Object of Desire" 50 years later, Buñuel made accepted morality and religion the brunt of a satire. His artful condemnation of conventional moral systems, as well as his great skills as a filmmaker, are now on display in a retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Buñuel's first film, "Un Chien Andalou" (1928), begins with one of film's most famously horrifying image: A razor blade slits open a human eyeball, and out oozes jelly. Converting harsh reality into a surreal, dreamlike state, the film established a theme that would carry Buñuel through his career: the past's ability to repress our natural selves. His next film, "L'Age d'Or" (1930), developed the theme further with a love story set in a modern Rome, in which the new imperial regime is just as repressive as the old one, and the Catholic Church is portrayed as a part of the city's decadent history.

Bunuel expresses the deadening power of tradition in the film's famous image of skeletons of church bishops piled on rocks. This ironic reading of Matthew 16:18, where Jesus tells Peter (whose Greek name means "rock") that he will build his church on him, reinforces Bunuel's theme that the church's values are founded upon decay and death because of the decay and the corruption of its leaders.

In 1932, Spain's Republican government took exception to "Las Hurdes" ("Land Without Bread"), an electrifying documentary about the country's poverty that attacked the regime's morality, and banned the film as defamatory. Buñuel stopped making his own films between 1935 and 1950. He remained active by producing films, and after immigrating to America in 1938 he found work editing war documentaries for the Museum of Modern Art.

That year Buñuel re-emerged as a director who presented gritty images in a dreamlike manner. In the neo-realistic "The Forgotten and the Damned" ("Los Olvidados"), a boy is beaten to death by his companion, a blind man is beaten and robbed by young hoodlums, and the boyish protagonist is slashed to death and dumped on a garbage heap. It is Buñuel's condemnation of a middle class that has created a separate world of destitution and crime, attempting to separate itself from the poor. Buñuel won the Cannes Director's Prize in 1951 for this portrayal of a moral structure that perpetuates hell on earth.

Between 1950 and 1960, he made more than 20 films. In this, his most productive period, he took his moral challenge most directly to the teaching of Christianity in "Nazarin" (1958) and "Viridiana" (1961).

"Nazarin" is based on a 19th-century novel about a handsome Mexican priest who attempts to live a Christ-like life of service to the poor, only to be cast out by his church. Living in the wild, the priest gathers a group of female followers who turn out to be more interested in him sexually than spiritually. Vaguely structured after the life of Christ and echoed in Denys Arcand's "Jesus of Montreal," the film follows the priest's increasing disillusionment with his own message. "One can be relatively Christian," Buñuel said about "Nazarin," "but the absolutely pure being, the innocent, is condemned to defeat."

If "Nazarin" portrays the impossibility of living a sincere religious life, "Viridiana" verges on a parody of humble Christianity. Young and beautiful Viridiana (she is named after a medieval saint) is headed to a convent to seek a devout life. Her devotion, however, doesn't deter her wealthy uncle from becoming obsessed with her. He drugs her, dresses her in his late wife's wedding dress, and almost rapes her.

Filled with shame, Viridiana prepares to depart for the convent when she discovers her uncle has hung himself, and she remains to run the estate with her uncle's bastard son, Jorges, meanwhile opening his estate to a group of homeless and leprous beggars as penance for causing her uncle's death. When the beggars break into the house and stage a Dionysian orgy--culminating in Buñuel's famous parody of The Last Supper--Viridiana is almost raped by one of the lepers, and her spiritual arrogance breaks.

The film closes with Viridiana having exchanged her spiritual vocation for a game of cards with Jorges and his mistress. The critics took "Viridiana" as an insult to Christianity, but Buñuel's portrayal of an innocent who embraces the church's unreachable ideals is powerfully realistic.

Buñuel's later films, including the masterpiece "Belle de Jour" (1967), "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1973), "The Phantom of Liberty" (1974), and "That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977) continue his attack on modern morality's failure to offer satisfactory guidelines for conduct.

In "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," the dinner guests' refined manners are parodied by continual interruptions--an ostrich wanders through, the guests find themselves on a stage in front of a live audience and cannot remember their lines, a couple acts on their passion and has sex on the dinner table. In the end, dinner never gets eaten.

Stark in their conclusions, Buñuel's films are often humorous glimpses of our resilience in spite of society's efforts to repress us with the sheer weight of moral tradition.

There's no doubt Bunuel could be irreverent--in a an uproarious scene from "Simon of the Desert" (1965), his film about the temptations of the desert monk Simeon Stylites, crowds of spectators gather to rate Simon's miracles--but there is nothing essentially anti-Christian about his movies. Instead, Bunuel challenges us to be true to ourselves and to throw off the artificial yolks imposed on us by tradition for tradition's own sake.

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