Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Exterminating Angel

El ángel exterminador; mystery/ surreal, Mexico, 1962; D: Luis Buñuel, S: Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rimbal, Claudio Brook, José Baviera

The rich Edmundo and his wife Lucia invite about 20 snobbish people from the upper class to their mansion for a party. Inexplicably, their servants suddenly start leaving the premises. Even more inexplicably, after midnight, the guests are somehow reluctant to leave the mansion, so they sleep over the night. The next morning, they find out they cannot "order" themselves to leave the room, making them trapped. After one guest plays the same piano piece before the whole bizarre affair started, they are "free" to leave outside. However, a few days later, many more people get "trapped" in a church while a military junta starts a crackdown on civilians outside.

Luis Bunuel's most famous film, the overhyped "The Exterminating Angel", nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes, is still a challenging piece of surrealism that keeps puzzling the viewers and critics, whereas the director's own deliberate vagueness - when he basically refused to give any hints how to decipher the bizarre story - seems more like an attempt at forced mystification: it can be something meaningful, but it can be also something banal, like just a satire on agoraphobia. Similarly like "The Woman in the Dunes" and "In the Company of Wolves", "Angel" is also a film consisting entirely from pure symbolism, yet after the main tangle "sets in" the movie somehow drags and has a general lack of spirit, evident in lifeless dialogues.

Still, it is interesting to try to analyze it: in the opening act, Bunuel shows the upper class guests at the party as selfish, arrogant, spoiled brats - they laugh at and mock a poor butler who trips and drops the table in front of them; a woman is so bored she breaks the window by throwing a glass through it; two men discuss a woman who has cancer ("She will lose her hair in four months." - "Well, at least she has a nice skull."); a man is about to cheat on his wife, etc. There is not a sympathetic character in sight. And it seems Bunuel enjoys in taking revenge on them, by making the mansion a concentration camp for the bourgeoisie. It is implied, however, that the reason they cannot leave the house is not physical, but psychological - they became so dehumanized people of the upper class that they are "trapped" in that mindset, they cannot escape their mental prison until they drop all their inhibitions and facades, thereby showing their true nature. Some have seen it as a restructuring of the myth of Sisyphus, others even as an allegory of escaping Samsara (the mansion in the story), i.e. the continuous cycle of death and rebirth, to find Nirvana, whereas the finale seems to point that they are sheep, passive masses hidden behind their comfortable "four walls" unaware of the real world outside, the military junta oppressing ordinary people.


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