Director: Luis Buñuel
Screenwriter: Luis Buñuel
Cast: Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Claudio Brook, José Baviera, Augusto Benedico
Run Time: 1 Hour and 33 Minutes
Availability: Streaming on Hulu Plus. Digital Rental or Purchase from Amazon. DVD from The Criterion Collection.
If you read a plot synopsis for Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film “The Exterminating Angel,” it sounds like it will be a generic experience. The premise, a group of people trapped in one location and their reversion to a raw, animalistic nature, has been done many times before. A recent film that comes to mind is Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King story “The Mist.” There is probably a “Twilight Zone” episode with a similar story as well. However, what separates “The Exterminating Angel” from its ilk is the creativity, the subversiveness and openness for interpretation, and its genre defining nature. Unlike say “Devil” from 2010, “The Exterminating Angel” is a “people trapped in one location film” done extremely well.
Plot is very simple. A group of rich, bourgeois people attend a party at a friends house. Though the party wants to come to an end, the group finds they can’t leave the house. It’s not a physical force that is causing this, but rather a psychological one. Furthermore, anyone outside the house finds they cannot enter. Hours and days go by, and tensions mount high as the group struggles to find an answer to this conundrum.
A main difference between this film and others of its kind is that it’s not easy to classify. “The Mist” for example, can easily be classified as a horror film. With “The Exterminating Angel” though, there is debate as to what genre it fits into. Personally, I found it to be a very suspenseful drama. Yet some critics, such as Roger Ebert, define it as a black comedy. It does work as that, particularly if you support some of the many theories people have of this movie, which I will get to later. The movie is also never clear if what is happening is real or perhaps a dream. That speaks to the creativity, complexity and story-telling abilities of Buñuel.
It takes a little while for it to get going. The first 20 minutes or so are just the party sequences, and you get no hint of where the story is headed. However, once it takes off and the group realizes what is happening, the film becomes its own. Buñuel makes the most of his one location, the parlor room of the mansion, and he perfectly builds the tension and drama. His cast does an amazing job. You feel them getting weaker and more angry and upset at their situation as the film progresses. If this was solely a “people trapped in one location movie” it would be a good representation of that sub genre as it very suspenseful, well-paced and well-acted. However to add to the experience, Buñuel trademark surrealism is scattered throughout. At the beginning of the film, there is a scene that repeats itself just a few minutes later. This actually happens a few times throughout the film. There are also sequences towards the end where you hear voiceover narration, followed by visual images that don’t correlate to what the voiceover is saying. Also, for some reason there are sheep and a bear at the house. These little bouts of strangeness make the film its own. However, they never feel like a cheap way to pad out that movie. In a lesser filmmakers hand, it might not have worked. Yet, Buñuel is a master of surrealism and knows how to use these sequences to enhance the story rather than detract. I want to go back and watch this film just to see if there was any odd moments I may have missed upon first viewing.
Many critics have tried to ascribe a deeper meaning to the film. Some says it’s a commentary on how the rich can’t do anything on their own without the working class. Others say it is a commentary on the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Those are valid and I can definitely see where they are coming from. However, I think trying to add meaning to a Buñuel film is kind of meaningless, especially seeing as the director never liked to ascribe meaning or explain what his work was about. In my experience, what I liked most about “The Exterminating Angel” is how Buñuel played with my expectations. It was enjoyable as a piece of cinematic trickery, not because of its deeper meanings. You can certainly view the film with one of these deeper meanings, but I find it best to view it as a unique, creative experience.
I had not seen a Luis Buñuel before this review. Needless to say, I am so looking forward to checking out what else he has to offer. Without hesitation, I recommend checking out this one. Yes the basic story has been told before, but there is enough ingenuity and creativity to make this one stand out. I think it is very worthy of being on a greatest films of all time list.
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