Sent off for a Jesuit education by his prosperous Spanish parents, Luis Buñuel went on to attend the University of Madrid, where he first became interested in the burgeoning European film industry. Upon graduating from Paris' Academie du Cinema, his first movie job was as an assistant to French-based directors Jean Epstein and Mario Nalpas. In partnership with an old friend, Spanish painter/sculptor Salvador Dali, Buñuel put together the three-reel surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou (1928), the film that features dead donkeys on a piano, a razor slashing an eyeball, and other deliberately shocking images that cineastes have either praised or damned for the past seven decades.
Buñuel's first feature film, L'Age d'Or, was banned from public exhibition almost immediately from the moment of its 1930 premiere; its principal opponents were high-ranking members of the Catholic church, who condemned the film as savagely sacrilegious. After 1932's Land Without Bread, an uncompromising look at the squalor, poverty, and ignorance inherent in Spain's peasant villages, Buñuel signed on at Paramount Paris in 1933, overseeing the dubbing of Hollywood pictures. He moved on to an executive producer's post at Madrid's Filmfono Studios, where, during the Spanish Civil War, he began work on a Hollywood-financed pro-Loyalist film that was abandoned when Franco emerged victorious.
Broke and persona non grata in his own country, Buñuel came to New York, where, from 1939 through 1942, he worked at the Museum of Modern Art. His plans to assemble an epic anti-Nazi documentary from the museum's reserve of newsreel footage never came to fruition, though he did manage to complete a 1940 March of Time piece on the Vatican. In 1947, he moved to Mexico, where his first directorial effort was Gran Casino (aka En el viejo Tampico ). Buñuel regained the international attention he'd lost in 1930 with Los Olvidados, a purely "commercial" film which nonetheless contained elements of his old anti-Catholicism. With 1952's El, Buñuel was able to fulfill his long-held ambition to make a film about utter, irredeemable madness, something he'd been denied back in 1946 when he was removed from the production staff of Warner Bros.' Beast With Five Fingers (1946).
One of the few Buñuel films of the 1950s to be marketed to the Hollywood mainstream was Robinson Crusoe (1954), which would remain the most iconoclastic version of Daniel Defoe's novel until director Jack Gold's Man Friday (1976). After several years in Mexico, Buñuel returned to Spain in 1960 to make Viridiana. When the Spanish government censors took a good long look at the film's parodic "Last Supper" scene (with beggars, thieves, and morons in place of the disciples), Buñuel once more found his work banned in his native land. Apparently undeterred, the director went on to make such remarkable works as Exterminating Angel (1962), Belle de Jour (1966), and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), each film distinguished by Buñuel's elegant decadence, his ceaseless search for beauty within ugliness and vice versa, and his utter hatred for all things religious and "Establishment." The censorial climate in the U.S. had relaxed enough by 1972 to allow The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie to win the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. Buñuel's final film was That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), the most unusual adaptation of Pierre Louys' oft-filmed novel La Femme et le Pantin. In Buñuel's version the female protagonist was played by two actresses simultaneously and dubbed by a third one.