Many have speculated on the correct path to heaven; Luis Bunuel suggested it was an old, crowded bus filled to bursting with people from all walks of life. So we have his 1952 film Ascent to Heaven (Subida al cielo
, a road movie with pretty unmistakable symbolism. It successfully combines domestic comedy and deathly serious implications while also containing a little of the surrealism for which Bunuel's movies of the 1920s and 1930s are well known.
The film also builds suspense beautifully. Starting with a wedding disapproved of by the groom's parents, the newly-weds are taking a little boat off to an island for their honeymoon when they're interrupted by the groom's greedy, self-centred brother, in a boat going the other direction, bearing news that their mother is terribly ill and near death. So he brings Oliverio (Esteban Marquez), the groom and the film's protagonist, back down to Earth, interrupting his first attempt to ascend to heaven. Oliverio must face trials before he can finally consummate his happy new domestic life.
Oliverio isn't sure he's going to make it to shore before his mother dies. She is still alive when he gets there but Oliverio's brother has gotten drunk with the only man in the little town authorised to witness the mother's new will so there's a good chance the wicked brother will steal all the inheritance away from Oliverio's innocent little nephew. So Oliverio embarks on a journey by bus to town where an even higher official can be found who'll witness the will. Oliverio was already afraid of not getting back before his morther died when he was just a mile or two away. Now he has to hope she sticks around for him to make a few days' journey and back.
Over course of time, the bus carries a politician, a farmer (and his goats), a middle aged mother of two, and a young pregnant woman who gives birth when the bus is caught on a little mountain road.
Also on board is a gorgeous young woman named Raquel (Lilia Prado) who is trying to seduce Oliverio for some reason. In case we miss what's going on here, Bunuel has her actually feeding an apple to Oliverio.
In a fascinating dream sequence, the apple peel becomes incredibly long and leads up to Oliverio's grinning mother where she sits on a pedestal, knitting, the product of her needles being somehow the apple peel.
Bunuel may as well have painted "Original Sin" in bold letters on the pedestal. But the association with the film's surface story is interesting. Raquel represents temptation to sin, yet she's symbolically tied to the whole purpose of Oliverio's journey. We see Oliverio's innocent wife pleading with him in the dream; why isn't she connected to the history of womankind the way Raquel is? Perhaps there's more reality in Oliverio's lust for Raquel than in his pious love for his wife.
Along the way to town--and to heaven--the passengers encounter various and chaotic trials and enticements, all of them strongly symbolising transition--the bus gets stuck crossing a river at one point, the bus driver later insists on stopping for a birthday and for a funeral. The politician, without success, tries to get across the river by threatening a tractor driver at gunpoint. One can suppose there's significance in who does or does not reach the destination but the end of the film wonderfully subverts the expectations accrued by the symbols. Things happen at the end that the audience would do well to ask whether it's good to feel pleased or displeased about.