El (This Strange Passion) is one of a handful of masterpieces from Luis Bunuel's "middle period" of the 1950s — long after his auspicious 1928 debut with Un Chien Andalou, and just prior to his great creative period of the 1960s.
From the time of his official "comeback" in 1950 with Los Olvidados, Bunuel worked steadily in Mexico and Spain crafting a series of what might be called "Surrealist melodramas." Genre films they no doubt were, but as was true with Douglas Sirk in America, they brought out the best in him. He turned them inside out.
"With El," he later told an interviewer, "I worked as I always did in Mexico: a film was proposed to me and instead of accepting it outright I tried to work out a counterproposal. Though my proposal was still commercial, it nevertheless seemed a better way of expressing some of the things I wanted to say."
Soap operas and melodramas were, after all, what that stalwart Surrealist phrase l'amour fou, or "crazy love," was all about. Bunuel took tales of heated love and thwarted desire and turned them into personal statements about obsession, repression, bourgeois propriety, Catholicism, and fetishism.
El, in fact, manages to get all this in the very first scene. During Holy Week, Don Francisco Galvan de Montemayor (Arturo de Cordova) is taking part in a Catholic foot-washing ceremony when he very suddenly falls in love — with a pair of feet. The middle-aged Don Francisco is a wealthy businessman, a devout Catholic, and, we come to find out, still a virgin. The problem isn't that he can't find anyone; he's handsome, vigorous, confident and a sharp dresser. The problem is that no one has ever been good enough. He's a romantic purist. These beautiful feet, then, present a challenge. He's a believer not just in love at first sight, but at first and last sight; having held out for a lifetime for the woman of his dreams, he is committed to possessing her for eternity.
The feet belong to Gloria (Delia Garces), who resists his charm but is just fearfully attracted enough by his self-assurance to leave her fiance Raul (Luis Beristein) for him. Of course, she doesn't quite know what she's in for, but her wedding night gives her a good idea: no sooner does Don Francisco embrace her than he works himself into a jealous rage over the possibility that she loved someone before him. For the duration of their honeymoon, he tortures himself with paranoid fears that Gloria is being stalked by a man she barely knows. In the couple's married life, reconciliation leads to violence, arguments end with gunfire, and a day's peaceful outing concludes with Don Francisco's Vertigo-esque threat to pitch Gloria from the top of a bell-tower. Gloria's efforts to change the situation come to naught; the rest of the world, including her own mother, are too impressed by Don Francisco's devotion to ever see through him. Far from satisfying Don Francisco, love turns this professional control freak into a raving nut and his new bride into his prisoner. Fernando goes berserk; first in a clumsy attempt at suturing Gloria's vagina and then later in church, where his ordered world implodes before his eyes.