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No Forgiveness for the Bourgeoisie: Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel

The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel is newly available on a nifty two-disc set from Criterion. This is the best of Buñuel’s twenty-something Mexican movies. It takes place on the Calle de la Providencia(Providence Street), in an opulent neighborhood in 1950s Mexico City. The gates of a huge mansion open. Twenty guests are expected, yet one of the servants wants to leave. It will cost him his job, but he will not be stopped. Same goes for the rest of the servants. Though they’ve prepared a sumptuous banquet, each has premonitions and one by one slips away. A foolish waiter stays behind for a time, but only Julio (played by the versatile Claudio Brook), seems determined to see things through.

What’s going on here?

The grandly dressed dinner guests flock in, the men in white tie, the women in ball gowns, gossiping, laughing, a pack of merry animals looking forward to being fed. The host (Enrique Rambal) calls for someone to take their coats. No one answers. How odd. Never mind. They’re there to enjoy themselves. Yes, but then they enter a second time and the host calls for someone to take their coats and no one answers and….

What is going on?

The answer is that after a sumptuous meal and a delightful piano recital by one of the guests, all are mysteriously prevented from leaving the living room. During their week-long confinement, Buñuel takes pleasure (and so do we) in exposing them as repugnant human beings. Each is guilty of at least one of the Seven Deadly Sins: Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Envy, Anger and Pride. In addition, each is guilty of that most heinous of all sins, at least by the standards of the bourgeoisie, Breach of Etiquette. For as Chesterton reminded us, while there is mercy in Heaven for the murderer, the traitor and the thief, there is no forgiveness for choosing the wrong fork.

The spell affects those on the outside as well. Not even the army or the police, not even the children of the guests, are able to enter the mansion. At last the spell is lifted – at least briefly, very briefly – when Leticia (Silvia Pinal), the most vivid and mysterious of those inside, discovers the solution. The guests at last leave, the servants re-enter and the police go about their business of enforcing the law, which of course includes a massacre of civil protesters in Mexico City’s Independence Square (Buñuel uses actual newsreel footage).

Disc Two of this set includes a 2008 documentary by Gaizka Urresti and Javier Espada, featuring screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and director Juan Luis Buñuel, in which we are conducted to the places sacred to Luis Buñuel. This is essential to an understanding of this great director’s career, which reached its pinnacle in the 1960s and 70s.

Readers of CounterPunch are entitled to the information which appears in no other publication that I know of. Even though all considerable resources at the Mexican film industry were put at Buñuel’s disposal in the making of this film – most notably the services of Gabriel Figueroa, a world-class cinematographer – nobody noticed that in a critical early scene a boom mike intrudes itself into the frame.

Details:

New, restored high-definition digital transfer
Released on  February 10,  2009
2 Discs SRP: $39.95; Criterion Store price $31.96 
Mexico; 1962; Spanish; 94 minutes; Black and White; 1.33:1
New interviews with actress Silvia Pinal and filmmaker Arturo Ripstein
Theatrical trailer
New and improved English subtitle translation
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Marsha Kinder and an interview with Buñuel from the 1970s

BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of the original Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.