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El Gran Calavera (The Great Madcap)

Posted on Feb 9, 2013 by | 0 comments

El Gran Calavera was Bunuel’s second film he directed in Mexico. The film was written by Janet and Luis Alcoriza based on Adolfa Torrado’s stageplay, produced by Oscar Dancigers and Fernando Soler, and photographed by Ezeuquiel Carassco. This comedy of manners is a step-up from Bunuel’s previous film, Gran Casino, and introduced some of the themes he would tackle in his later films.

For this discussion article on Bunuel’s El Gran Calavera I will attempt to explain the way the narrative functions and produces its meaning. We will look at the ideological terms the films introduces and how they are dealt with in the film. I hope my three readers will indulge me in this exercise in pretentious criticism.

El Gran Calavera begins with an introduction to the de le Mata family. Their patriarch is Don Ramiro, a rich CEO of a successful business in Mexico. He supports his brother Ladislao, his sister in-law, and his two children, Lalo and Virginia.

The movie begins with talk of Virginia and Alfredo’s upcoming wedding. The family members and friends from both sides of the wedding are having a party at the Ramiro mansion. Don Ramiro busts into the party, sufficiently loaded, and breaks up the party. Confusing Alfredo’s mother for a senor (to be fair to Ramiro, the woman has a thick, disgusting mustache; from now on I will refer to this character as mustache-mom). The family puts Ramiro to bed and talk about this inappropriate behavior.



The family believes Ramiro is mentally and emotionally ill and needs something extreme to bring him back to health. They decide to trick Ramiro into believing he has lost everything and the family has become broke and now have to work for a living.

Bunuel’s film is essentially a social experiment, that is, taking subjects from a particular class position in Mexican society and putting them into unfamiliar territory to see how they behave. The film emphasizes the personal journey’s of the characters as much as it emphasizes the way social class determines how subjects behave in society. The film introduces another narrative term (represented by a different setting and characters) to contrast the existence of the rich social classes (represented by Ramiro’s family and the party guests we saw earlier in the film celebrating Virginia’s upcoming marriage to Alfredo). We can juxtapose these terms under social class categories, that is, as RICH versus VIRTUE. The film explores the social juxtaposition rather simply contrasting low with high income members of society. With wealth comes status, self-esteem, leisure time, and a particular set of manners and styles for behaving.

If the ideological meaning of the film is going to present itself to us we must then include the terms that are generated by the first juxtaposition of rich versus poor which are of course Not-rich and Not-virtuous(the opposites of the semic content of the original binary terms). This semiotic square (developed by semiotician A.J. Greimas) goes beyond merely juxtaposing two terms (which is how all meaning is produced with language as it is; no single word has any inherent many but only means something once it is juxtaposed to its opposite). The semiotic square allows us to map out the ideological terms of the narrative demonstrating how the film solves its own contradictions (whether they are contradictions in aesthetic form or in the content of the narrative; this particular use of Greimas’ semiotics was developed by Fredric Jameson). We will see below how these terms present themselves for our analysis.

Figure 1. El Gran Calavera – Semiotic square

S1 <——————————-> S2
RICH                                              VIRTUOUS

S2 (bar)<————————–> S1 (bar)
Not-VIRTUOUS                             Not-RICH

The first experiment that the character’s conduct is whether or not the new social class position will heal Ramiro’s mental and emotional health.

The next day, the family has moved into a poor neighborhood while Ramiro sleeps off his hangover. The patriarch wakes up and the family pretends that a year has passed, his business has gone bankrupt, and now they are poor. Ramiro is devastated. He watches his son Lalo shine shoes and his daughter work in the daughter and blames himself for their condition. He goes back to his room and thinks about what he has done.


Ramiro decides to commit suicide because he believes he will only cause his family more harm if he remains alive. He walks to the top of their tenement and looks at the city. Ramiro eventually musters enough courage to throw himself off the building. He jumps but lands on a painter’s scaffold.

One of his new neighbors is working and talks to Ramiro after he fails to kill himself. The neighbor’s name is Pablo, a hard-working and independent member of the lower class. He is compassionate to Ramiro and listens to his troubles. Pablo tells Ramiro that he moved into the tenement yesterday exposing his family’s deceit. Ramiro impulsively runs toward the stairs but Pablo believes that he will again try to commit suicide so he tackles Ramiro and punches him out to save his life.

Pablo brings Ramiro down to his family. While all of this action was happening on the tenement roof, Virginia found her father’s suicide note and tells her family that their plan failed to rehabilitate her father. Pablo carries Ramiro down to his room and tells them what happened. Pablo is immediately attracted to Virginia and complements her beauty. Pablo represents the combination of Not-RICH and VIRTUOUS. He is a poor man but is compassionate and honest, while Alfredo represents a rich man that is selfish, dishonest, and lazy.

The second experiment that the film introduces is conducted by Ramiro against his family. Now that he knows what they are doing he constructs his own ruse to teach them a lesson. His family is lazy, useless, and deceitful and he wants to make them better people by forcing them to believe they are now poor and must work hard for their income.

The film operates on these comedic twists to juxtapose the ideological terms we mapped out above. The family’s experiment not only heals Ramiro but produces another social experiment which will then make them virtuous members of society. In narrative terms, Ramiro’s ruse ensures that the family will stay in the poor tenement thus allowing Virginia and Pablo to have sustained contact which eventually turns into a romance.

The romance plot begins to take over the narrative thrust of the film. The film equally treats the change in virtues of Ramiro’s family and the development of Pablo and Virginia’s love for each other. Now I should mention Pablo’s advertising truck. This is a terrific storytelling object that is used in the film three times to introduce new events into the narrative. It is first heard and seen during the day while Ramiro’s family are hard at work in their home. Ladislao’s wife is complaining to Ramiro for some new stockings. Ramiro tells her they cannot afford a new pair. Offscreen we here an advertisement for beautiful stockings. Pablo works part time as an advertiser for business. He has connected a set of speakers to the outside of his truck and he drives around reading advertisements. Ramiro admires Pablo’s work ethic which contrasts to the work ethic of his family. The second appearance of the advertising truck is when Pablo and Virginia run some errands together. After a few hours of driving, Pablo and Virginia return to their tenement. Pablo professes his love for Virginia but the microphone is on in the cab and everyone can hear their conversation. Ramiro, his family, and the other tenement occupants listen intently to their conversation. Pablo and Virginia kiss in the car and everyone cheers except for Ramiro. I won’t mention the third instance until we get to the end of the film.


Ramiro’s family invites Pablo and his mother over to their house for dinner. Pablo’s mother is very pleasant and easygoing (compared to Alfredo’s mustache mother). The families are getting along fine until Alfredo and the mustache mother barge in. Alfredo and mustache-mom crash the party and tell the family they were worried about them after their disappearance. This charms Ramiro because he previously believed that Alfredo was marrying Virginia for his money not for love. Pablo and sans-mustache-mom leave the party once they realize they are not as important as Alfredo and mustache-mom. Moving forward, Ramiro’s family discovers that he is playing a trick on them and they decide to move back to their old mansion. Virginia is rejected by Pablo because she is rich and according to the ideological binary constructed in the film this must mean she is also selfish and dishonest and therefore he can’t love her. But, he still does. The power of love is truly astounding.

Fast forward a bit and we are now where we started. Virginia is going to marry Alfredo and all is well in Ramiro’s household. His family members are no longer useless and selfish but caring and productive members of society. The bourgeois have become virtuous by becoming their opposite for a short time and now they have become the Hegelian synthesis of the dialectic: rich and virtuous. We will return to this ideological resolution at the end of our discussion but for now I will continue describing the plot because my three readers have probably not seen this film and probably won’t in the near future (unless this article motivates them to download it which isn’t something I’m counting on). So we are now at the preparation scenes for the upcoming wedding until Ramiro discovers that Alfredo has lied to him and Virginia. He did not seek out Virginia because he loved but because he discovered Ramiro’s family plot (Hitchcock reference; not in the film of course but merely a word association that amused me as I wrote this sentence). That Alfredo is such a scoundrel! (Alfredo>Fredo. All characters named Fredo are bastards-Godfather part two reference).

So now Ramiro is again unhappy with his daughter’s marriage. He intervenes again, informing Virginia that Alfredo’s motives are not pure but selfish. Virginia doesn’t care. She is still heartbroken from Pablo’s rejection and tells her father that one man hates her for her money and one man loves her for her money, why not stay with the man that loves her money. Makes sense to me but not to Ramiro. He believes in love not in marrying for money.

The plot moves forward and we are now at the wedding of Alfredo and Virginia. Everything is going fine, mustache-mom is looking dignified and the ceremony is beautiful until Pablo drives by with his advertising truck. The film had two previous appearances of the ad-truck and now we get the payoff. The priest reads from the Bible while Pablo blasts an advertisement for women’s stockings. The two discourses battle for dominance until Virginia runs out to Pablo and they profess their love for each other for everyone to hear (via the microphone and speaker system of Pablo’s ad-truck). Ramiro and his family rejoice as the couple drives away from the church.


el gran calavera

The film resolves its conflict by uniting the binary terms RICH and VIRTUE in the figure of Pablo. However, it does so by recognizing that marriage will transfer Ramiro’s wealth to Pablo thus making him rich. The ideology of the romance film that uses this binary typically uses this to resolve the disequilibrium in the narrative. If wealth was not transferred to the Virginia/Pablo union then we would merely have what Greimas calls the negative deixis (VIRTUE + Not-RICH) which would mean the narrative is neither ideological nor utopian (Balzac’s narratives sometimes used this combination, see his novel The Old Maid). But, here we have an ideological narrative which leaves the material and social relations of production untouched while resolving the narrative disequilibrium of the film.

And now we will discuss the Hegelian positive third that I mentioned in paragraph 17. The characters are able to resolve the opposition between RICH and VIRTUE by spending some time with the working class. This is a typical liberal ideological strategy that functions in society and films the same way the charity does. It’s like volunteering at a soup kitchen. Rich liberals get to spend an afternoon feeding the homeless. Some might even say that they get more out of it than they are giving. Which is true because they’re basically doing a job that a shaved monkey could do. Just like the characters in El Gran Calavera, charity work does nothing to modify the social and material relations that create inequality in society but rather function as an ideological resolution that allows those relations to stay intact. This is the same ideological terrain that grounds romance films using the RICH versus VIRTUE binary.

Oscar Dancigers decided to work with Bunuel after the success of El Gran Calavera so they made Los Olvidados. This is one of Bunuel’s best films and I can’t wait to write about it next month.

Cody Lang
Avid film watcher, film critic, and amateur film maker. Currently working on a book of film criticism dealing with American neo-noir in the seventies
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