Friday, December 16, 2016

Luis Buñuel on Blu-ray with one of his best -- THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL

An artist at work and very near (hell, maybe at) the top of his form can be seen in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, the 1962 Mexican movie from that world-class filmmaker, Luis Buñuel.  While I run hot to luke-warm on this fellow's overall oeuvre, this particular film is one of my favorites -- which I have seen maybe only once since I first viewed it on its New York debut at the New York Film Festival, back, I believe, in 1963. At that time, the movie provoked the usual reactions from the cultured crowd -- What's going on here? Why is it happening? Is this a metaphor, and if so, for what? --  dividing audiences, of course, but also grabbing them for the film's duration.

That the movie is also all about "the cultured crowd," Mexican version, is no accident. In it, Señor Buñuel (shown at left) tweaks his usual suspects: Class, Religion, and bourgeois hypocrisy. But how he does this is what counts. Why, together with what this means, is left a mystery, but with clues scattered generously about so that we can each draw our own conclusion, while feeling reasonably sure that, of course, this is what Buñuel must have meant. If only Luis were ever that easily "pinned down."

Back in 1963, audiences were only just beginning to tackle movies that had to be deciphered, and we weren't nearly as adept at it as we -- well, some of us -- are now. Seeing The Exterminating Angel again today may also make you realize that deciphering is not all that mandatory. We don't need to know everything. In fact, here, it is best to sit back, relax and go with the flow.

The tale told is of a dinner party among the very wealthy and class-conscious. We see preparations for the party taking place, as certain members of "the help" take their leave of the mansion before that party even begins. Class is already raising its nasty little head.

The guests arrive, are seated and witness a shocking accident that oddly provokes laughter. They eat, they chat, they listen as one of their own plays the piano, and then... they don't leave. They stay and stay and stay. A performing bear and some sheep make appearances (Communism and Religion? Nah: that's too easy). And our pampered guests go slowly from bad to worse.

Just as they are unable to leave the room in which they find themselves trapped (is this some kind of mass agoraphobia?), neither can the outside world find the will or the way to enter this now captive mansion. In other hands we'd have something "magical" and/or otherworldly. Buñuel smartly makes it seems so ordinary and oddly almost normal that we buy it, even as we keep questioning 'why.'

Performances from every last actor are on the nose. This moviemaker had a knack for casting and making sure his cast delivered. Best known among them is probably the lovely Silvia Pinal (above, center), whose character may be more (or less) than we perceive. (There a great interview with Ms Pinal today -- or fairly recently, at least -- in which she talks about Buñuel and his movie-making methods. It's a delight to see, hear and consider.)

Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection, the movie -- in Spanish with English subtitles -- runs only 95 minutes. But those minutes are fully packed with amazement and surprise. And as usual with Criterion, the movie arrives with a very nice array of supplementary "bonus" materials.

The photos above are from the film, 
with the exception of Buñuel's 
which is by Jack Manning
and comes courtesy of Getty Images.

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