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The Exterminating Angel
cast: Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Lucy Gallardo, and Augusto Benedico

director: Luis Bunuel

95 minutes (12) 1962
Arrow DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
After Bunuel's victory with El Nazarin at the 1958 Cannes film festival, Franco was so impressed with the director that he invited him to make a film in Spain to show off Spanish culture and values. The resulting film Viridiana turned out to be a scathing critique of society, religion and the family prompting Bunuel to flee Spain for Mexico. The Exterminating Angel sees Bunuel return to similar themes in creating a film that is one part surrealist fable, one part social satire and one part black comedy.

Edmundo and Lucia Nobile are hugely rich. They live in a vast mansion with impressive grounds and are waited upon by a dozen servants while they sit in lavishly decorated luxury. This changes though when they decide to hold a dinner party for their equally wealthy and sophisticated friends. The evening starts poorly as servants begin to flee the house, leaving the guests to be waited on by a lone remaining member of staff, the Nobiles' butler. As the evening wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that the guests have overstayed their welcome and yet the Nobiles daren't say anything for fear of offending anyone. When people start stripping off and going to sleep in the drawing room, the Nobiles are horrified and yet they do the same in order to 'attenuate' the social faux pas. Soon the entire group is sleeping on the floor but they only realise that something is wrong when the morning comes around and they still find themselves making excuses not to leave. Indeed, the guests and their hosts are incapable of leaving the drawing room; they are trapped as if by some irresistible force. As the days wear on, the social niceties and sophistication that brought the friends together start to dissolve as people turn to drugs and religion and plotting while the doctor continually tries to keep people 'calm' and 'reasonable'. Meanwhile, on the outside of the mansion, the police and army seem aware of the situation but just as the guests inside the house are unable to leave, the police outside are unable to enter. It is only when one of the guests thinks to retrace the group's steps on the night of the party and demonstrate how they could very well have left had they wanted to that the group breaks free. The film ends with the group so grateful for their freedom that they choose to attend a mass, only to find themselves this time unable to leave the church.

The first thing that will strike you about this film is how old it looks. Despite being made in 1962, the black and white film and the costumes suggest a film that could very well have been made in the 1930s. This impression is re-enforced by the poor sound quality of the DVD and the slightly grainy texture of the picture. However, the effect is not unpleasant as it gives the film a feeling of timelessness and universality. Indeed, the film is more about the situation and the characters than visual spectacle so any re-mastering would have been more of a luxury than a necessity and the lack of extras here confirms this as a bare bones release.

The decision to forego a commentary track or some kind of interview, is unfortunate as The Exterminating Angel is a densely symbolic film that requires a good deal of thought and analysis if one is to get the most out of it.

Reminiscent of Renoir's La Regle Du Jeu, The Exterminating Angel is a biting critique of bourgeois society and the absurd and arbitrary limits people impose upon their own freedom. Throughout the film, the guests behave like sheep in that one person's failed attempt at leaving serves only to reinforce everyone's belief that they are trapped. Throughout the film no concerted effort is ever made to escape and when one guest suggests pushing another one out the door, the second guest responds by threatening to kill him. Nowhere is this sheep-like behaviour more evident than at the arrival of a flock of sheep that coincides not only with the group turning against itself but with Nobile's offer to sacrifice himself for the good of the group suggesting that these people are not only sheep but cannibalistic sheep who would eat their own just to survive, making one of them a sacrificial lamb. Indeed, compare the actions of the sheep with that of the bear. The sheep march towards their doom in the drawing room but the bear is free, he runs about, playing and symbolically climbing the house's roman columns, so symbolic of civilisation itself. But Bunuel doesn't stop there as he criticises the working classes who, through deference, refuse to enter the mansion, and religion that not only fails to come to the aid of the group but also serves only to trap them a second time.

However, while brilliantly made and wonderfully satirical, The Exterminating Angel is not a flawless film. Indeed, while the intension of the film is clearly to be funny, there are few moments that will raise more than a smile. This is, in part, due to Bunuel's intentional repetitiveness (mocking the fact that people get re-introduced to each other at dinner parties) that serves to prevent things from ever completely spiralling out of control and the incredibly earnestness of the performers, something made worse by the fact that Bunuel only really develop some of the characters, leaving others to cling to catchphrases ("He's over-sensitive!") and nicknames ('The Valkyrie' or 'Colonel').

Despite a stingily packaged DVD and a few flaws that prevent the film from being truly fantastic, The Exterminating Angel is still a wonderfully satirical and wicked film that is well worth checking out.

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