by Mel Valentin
Bring up the name of filmmaker Luis Buñuel in a roomful of cineastes and the conversation will inevitably focus on Buñuel’s European films from at the beginning of his career (e.g., "Un Chien Andalou" [An Andalusian Dog], "L’Age D’Or") or the end (e.g., "The Phantom of Liberty," "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "That Obscure Object of Desire"). His mid-career films, made during his extended exile in Mexico and beginning with "Los Olvidados" in 1950 (Buñuel was given the “Best Director” award at the Cannes Film Festival). Buñuel’s output during the 1950s may be less celebrated, partly because Buñuel was forced to work on commercial projects and modest budgets and partly because most of those films are unavailable in subtitled versions for English-language audiences. Whatever their artistic merit, Buñuel's Mexican films allowed him to develop his ideas and craft as a narrative filmmaker.By the late 50s, Buñuel was given larger budgets and more artistic freedom. His first undisputed masterpiece, El Nazarín, a surprisingly poignant character study of a fallen idealistic priest who finds his Christian beliefs challenged and compromised in an unforgiving, cruel world. El Nazarín won the 1958 Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. With his international reputation at a high point, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975, invited Buñuel to Spain to make a film. The result, 1961’s Viridiana, a subversive takedown of Buñuel’s favorite targets, the Church, the State, and the Family, caused a furor among the Spanish powers-that-be and, later, the Roman Catholic Church. Viridiana was banned and Buñuel was forced to smuggle a copy out of Spain. It won the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme D'Or.
"One of Luis Buñuel's most memorable efforts from his Mexican period."
Back in Mexico, Buñuel, Silvia Pinal, the star of Viridiana and her producer-husband, Gustavo Alatriste, decided to work together again, with Buñuel and his writing partner, Luis Alcoriza, taking judicious aim at the foibles of the bourgeoisie. No stuffy political treatise, El Angel Exterminador (“The Exterminating Angel”), is equal parts subversive commentary, black comedy, and surrealistic fantasy. The premise, a dinner party gone mysteriously, inexplicably awry, was one Buñuel would reuse (and modify) a decade later in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. El Angel Exterminador is less playful, with an emphasis on the breakdown of a fragile social order once the comforts of upper-class living are stripped away from the dinner guests.
The dinner-party hosts, Edmundo Nobile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife, Lucía (Lucy Gallardo), are comfortably, idly rich. They live in a large mansion off a tree-lined street, separated from the lower classes by a large driveway and an imposing gate. Edmundo and Lucía’s wealth extends to its conspicuous consumption, primarily in their ornately decorated rooms and the half-dozen servants they employ (e.g., kitchen staff, maids, butlers, wait staff). Tonight, though, is special. Edmundo and Lucía have invited a dozen of their closest friends to celebrate Silvia’s (Rosa Elena Durgel) recent success as a pianist. Another guest, Leticia, 'La Valkiria' (Silvia Pinal, in a relatively minor role), raises the interests of the men with her cold, distant behavior (she’s also reputedly a virgin). A brother and sister, Alicia de Roc (Jacqueline Andere) and Alberto (Enrique García Álvarez), have an unusually close relationship (but no one seems to notice). Eduardo (Xavier Masse) and Beatriz (Ofelia Montesco), a young couple, are only days away from their wedding.
All is not right, though, in Edmundo and Lucía’s world. In ones and twos, the servants leave, some with explanations, some without. Lucía is unsurprisingly upset, as the servants are needed to cater to the large dinner party. Edmundo and Lucía muddle through with the help of Julio, (Claudio Brook), the one remaining servant. As the night wears on, the guests seem to give in to a general malaise. Rather than leave, the guests decide to stay the night. Edmundo and Lucía are slightly perturbed by the turn of events, but graciously give in. Hosts and guests sleep together in the living room, but when morning arrives, everyone discovers that they can’t leave, at least not just yet.
What begins as a minor breach in etiquette slowly grows into confusion, frustration, desperation, and panic. First though, Carlos Conde (Augusto Benedico), a medical doctor, attempts to assuage the guests’ concern by using his authority to calm their fears and anxieties. That proves to be a temporary balm, as other, more urgent concerns arise, e.g., food, water, and toilet facilities. The days pass and a crowd forms outside the mansion (they discover that they can’t come in). Inside, several characters grow ill, one lapses into a coma, one turns to witchcraft, and others begin to bring up God and prayer as the only means for salvation. All prove ineffectual. But wait, there are sheep running around the premises and a bear tied up in the kitchen (apparently part of the after-dinner entertainment).
That religion, organized (e.g., Christianity) or decentralized (paganism), proves to be a literal dead end for the characters is par for the course with Buñuel. As a dedicated rationalist and atheist, he found religion nothing more than rudimentary, backward superstition, useful perhaps to cope with grief and loss, but otherwise an impediment to the struggle for material and social progress. As an old-school surrealist, Buñuel also believed that rationality had its limits. As commonly used today, "surrealism" has lost its once potent political and social meaning. Surrealism as a project used the logic of dreams (heavily influenced by Freud and his followers) to subversively challenge social, cultural, and political norms, with an often sharp critique of organized religion (Spain, France, and Mexico were/are Catholic countries). But the surrealists also saw humor as a potential tool to upend bourgeoisie norms. The comedy was often black, often satirical, and often startling in the way background assumptions about the social order were brought to the foreground and mercilessly ridiculed. Actually, the preceding description would fit El angel Exterminador comfortably.
El Angel Exterminador has everything the surrealists prized in art, subversive, satirical wit and humor, a sustained critique of social norms, and a central premise that defied logical analysis. Although the characters struggle with an explanation for their crippling ennui, Buñuel and Alcoriza ultimately chose an ambiguous answer, that the ennui the characters are suffering may be a result of their inability to adapt to a servant-free life. If that’s correct, however, it doesn’t explain why the police, friends, or family members can’t get past the gate. The characters’ ennui, it seems, has spread to the outside world. The authorities respond as expected, by quarantining the mansion from the outside world. There's also no explanation for the repetition of shots, scenes, or even dialogue, except to suggest that the characters have entered a purgatory of their own making.But just when the situation looks hopeless for the hapless dinner guests and their hosts, Buñuel just as inexplicably gives them the opportunity to escape the mansion. Having no love for the bourgeoisie, though, Buñuel makes sure that whatever respite his characters are given is short-lived. And what’s a Buñuel film without some Christian symbolism thrown in for good measure? It’s there, in the (literal) sacrificial lambs that Edmundo and Lucía penned up in the kitchen for the after-dinner gag that might just “save” the dinner guests. The once-chained, later freed bear, however, is a bit trickier to explain. Is the bear an outward projection of some kind? Maybe of the guests’ steady, unexceptional descent into selfish, chaotic behavior? Perhaps, but if so, Buñuel preferred to keep the bear as part of the dream-logic that spreads into the world of Edmundo, Lucía, and their dinner guests.
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originally posted: 04/22/06 22:17:26