Like any effective parable, The Exterminating Angel will draw you into its spell, causing you to draw parallels that will subjectively frame your experience of it, but — to be fair — Luis Bunuel is a true artist. At a young age, he hung out with surrealists during the 1920′s in Paris, directed films that challenged religious authorities and Franco’s political establishment in Spain during the 1930′s, and eventually become an exile in Mexico. He came back to Spain years later, but after attacking Christianity in his 1961 film, Viridiana, he was back in Mexico as an exile. This is the second in a trilogy of films where Bunuel collaborated with Silvia Pinal. And how inspiring that he produced his most accomplished work between the ages of 60 and 77.
- Director: Luis Bunuel
- Writer: Luis Bunuel
- Cast: Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal
A group of bourgeois types gather as guests at a someone’s wealthy home for dinner. When it is time to go home, they are incapable of leaving, despite not being preventing from leaving in any physical way. This realization is met with humor at first, but the group becomes increasingly irritable and hostile as days go by and food and water become scarce. While all this is going on, all the house workers have left the home. Things get surreal, suicides occur, and people go into survival mode. Why can’t they leave, and just as importantly, what does it all mean?
Critics tend to agree that this is Bunuel’s best film. While it is indeed a solid film, I suspect it’s critical acclaim stems largely from its ability to present a parable with great technical ability. Bunuel is as deliberate and crafty as filmmakers come, with The Exterminating Angel intended to represent his own views on Bourgeois society. The lighting by legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who trained under Gregg Toland and lit a large number of films during Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema, is as good as black and white photography can get. On poetic and literate level, The Exterminating Angel is masterful, well paced and brilliant at establishing suspense despite the absence of a hard reason to explain why the guests are unable to leave the home. The acting is flawless, as nothing less than great acting is required to immerse us in a situation that clearly doesn’t make sense at first. The tone of the film is serious but it carries a high degree of black comedy.
By setting up a plot where wealthy people become captives, Bunuel is creating an environment reminiscent of a concentration camp to draw a parallel between literal captivity and the societal trappings associated with social roles among the wealthy. It is interesting to see that the answer to set themselves free derives from their ability to think their way back to how the past led to this point. A refreshing point to consider, but like much of the film’s merits, it remains a highly cerebral and theoretical accomplishment with proficient, if not fully accessible, filmmaking. My only fear is that upon first viewing, it is unlikely that most audiences will understand this message. The fact that Bunuel never made his political symbolism that blatant suggests that repeated viewings are likely to only add to the enjoyment of this viewing experience. For now, it’s “greatness” remains in question.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Luis Bunuel is masterful at blending together music, the cordial conversation that makes up much of the opening dialogue, and the sense of dark humor. As Ebert’s review accurately states, Bunuel seems to be saying that regardless of how prosperous a group of people, “pen them up long enough and they’ll turn on one another like rats in an overpopulation study.” By the time the premise is fully established, I am in agreement when Ebert points out the merits of Bunuel’s ability to set up so many sinister and subtle elements that we can’t help but get wrapped up in it. I enjoyed this film, but I don’t entirely forgive it for lacking explanation. Ebert points out the film’s intro, which reads, “the best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.” While I applaud Bunuel’s artistic courage, I don’t believe he should get a full pass on not developing characters or creating parallels that are more accessible to fresh audiences. While supremely simulating as a film, it lacks a few elements that keep it from being great.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like The Exterminating Angel? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: WR: Mysteries of the Organism
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel this week, he now has 318 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.