Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. However, when Luis Buñuel is smoking, that cigar is, you should excuse the expression, on fire. Buñuel, born in Calanda, Spain in 1900, had a long and storied career as a film maker, iconoclast and social commentator.
His stories radiated a stunning and singular moral clarity. Two of his earliest efforts, Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) and L’Age D’Or (The Age of Gold) were short and extremely stark condemnations of capitalism run amuck. Both were conceptual projects made with surrealist painter Salvador Dali. While they clearly caused a stir, after these two shorts, Buñuel was ready to strike out on his own.
And he did so with a vengeance. Throughout his career, Buñuel’s stories take the form of a mocking surrealist. It is as if he is holding up a mirror to our carefully conceived notions of who we think we are. Los Olvidados, Viridiana, Belle Du Jour, Tristana and Simon of the Desert are all classic parables relating to our modern desire for control and pleasure that cannot be contained.
Critic Roger Ebert praised Buñuel’s first picture, made during the silent era, calling it “the most famous short film ever made.” The accolades didn’t stop there. Writer Octavio Paz has called Buñuel’s work “the marriage of the film image to the poetic image, creating a new reality…scandalous and subversive.”
What sets The Exterminating Angel apart from Buñuel’s other celluloid adventures is the startling way he presents the bourgeois aesthetic in this seemingly restrained tale of a dinner party gone horribly wrong. This hypnotic story was made in Mexico after Buñuel left Spain and the furor created by Viridiana, his scandalous tele nova intertwining lust and the Catholic Church.
As The Exterminating Angel opens, we find ourselves in the middle of a formal dinner party at the opulent mansion of Señor Edmundo Nobile and his wife, Lucia. The festivities proceed in what might be called a traditional high society manner until, after the first third of the narrative, it becomes uncomfortably apparent that the dinner guests find themselves trapped, psychologically but not physically and are unable to leave the music room.
One critic, the late Roger Ebert, felt that, ‘The dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find that it never ends. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are thus revealed.”