Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 6/25/08.
After the release of 1961's Viridiana, Luis Bunuel, who was invited back to his native Spain by the country's leader Francisco Franco, made a film that angered Franco as his film was banned for nearly 15 years. Bunuel along with his film crew and entourage returned to Mexico where he had been working at for more than 15 years. Reuniting with his Viridiana star Silvia Pinal, the two collaborated once again for another film about an upper class dinner party where the guests find themselves unable to leave. Written and directed by Bunuel, El Angel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) is a film that explores the world of the upper class and how they've trapped themselves. Also starring Enrique Rambal, Claudio Brook, and Augusto Benedico. El Angel Exterminador is an eerie, surreal ensemble drama from Luis Bunuel.
Edmundo Nobile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife Lucia (Lucy Gallardo) are having a dinner party after a night in the opera. Earlier that night, the butler Julio (Claudio Brook) had just fired Lucas (Angel Merino) while the cooks and servants are all leaving for the night to run their own errands. The guests arrive with Julio and whatever servants are left to run the entire night. Attending are Dr. Conde (Augusto Benedico), Blanca (Patricia de Morelos), Leandro Gomez (Jose Baviera), Raul (Tito Junco), a young couple named Eduardo (Xavier Masse) and Beatriz (Ofelia Montesco), and a mysterious, foreign woman named Leticia (Silvia Pinal) among others. Things go fine as Blanca plays a sonata and everyone gets tired for the night unable to go home.
The morning begins as the guests find themselves unable to leave as an elderly guest named Sergio Russell (Antonio Bravo) is dying. Dr. Conde tries to examine everything that goes on as Julio becomes troubled this strange circumstance in which everyone including himself are unable to leave the room or the house. Russell dies as he's placed onto a large cupboard. Conde continues to examine everything that goes on as everyone is blaming Nobile for what’s going on as only Conde and Col. Alvaro (Cesar del Campo) defend him with Conde trying to maintain calm. Even as they break the water pipe for water as everyone is starved. Leonara (Bertha Moss) meanwhile, is becoming sick as she's also dying from a from a form of cancer with Conde needing to find her pills.
With police and onlookers holding vigil outside of the mansion, inside the mansion. Things become increasingly chaotic when they're trapped inside the room as a bear is outside while a flock of sheep had entered the room. With more deaths and claustrophobia ensuing, everyone wants to kill each other until Leticia calms everyone down as she tries to figure out everything while dealing with the ongoing sense of surrealism that's plaguing their minds.
A satire of sorts on the world of the upper class, Bunuel's admitted contempt for the upper class shows how a certain group of people. Absorbed by their own ideas and their own worlds, Bunuel takes them into a room and traps them where psychologically, they can't get out. What the film is about is a group of people who disintegrate themselves in their own mind as they're psychologically trapped inside a room. Just as the characters unravel, the roles of who they play start to flesh out as the audience get to see who they really are.
Bunuel's claustrophobic, eerie direction is truly magnificent where things start out slow at first only to give the sense of who these people are. Then as the first act ends with everyone realizing they can't get out. That's when the film really begins as the second act entails moments of death, anarchy, and character study. By the third act, everything unravels leading to a few characters to try and make sense of everything. The ending, like most of Bunuel's films tend to go into the surreal where everything becomes a circle. The film in some ways is also about a memory, particularly in the third act in relation to the first. The film also has moments where it's really mesmerizing whether it's a couple being affectionate with one another sexually, a moment of horror, or a something surreal in a strange dream sequence that emphasizes their state of mind. The result is truly a mesmerizing, harrowing study of character and of the minds from Luis Bunuel.
Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa does a superb job with the film’s black-and-white photography to convey the sense of horror and tension with hand-held camera, tracking shots, and lighting design as Figueroa’s work is truly amazing. Editor Carlos Savage does a wonderful job with some of the film's cutting style with the use of stock footage intermixed with the guests sleeping along with excellent transitional cutting and fade-outs to help give the film its structure. Production designer Jesus Bracho does a wonderful job in the posh look of the film's mansion interior scenes along with the room where every character is trapped and such. Costume designer Georgette Somohano does a wonderful job in the look of the dresses and suits that are worn where as the film goes on, the look of the clothes start to decay.
Sound editor Abraham Cruz does a fantastic job with the sound work including the cutting of dialogue layered one another during one of the film's surreal sequences. Special effects supervisor Juan Munoz Ravelo does a great job in one of the film's strange sequences that involves a lone hand moving. The film's music by Raul Lavista is minimal for its sweeping introduction in the film's opening credits sequence as well as the upbeat, melodic for parts of the film's first act. After that, there's not much music with the exception of a piano sonata performed on the film.
The film's cast is truly superb in its ensemble with notable small performances from Jacqueline Andere as the young Alicia, Xavier Loya as the young but nervous Francisco, Ofelia Guilmain as Francisco's older sister Juana, Xavier Masse as Eduardo, Ofelia Montesco as Beatriz, Lucy Gallardo as Nobile's wife, Bertha Moss as Leonora, Patricia de Morelos as Blanca, Tito Junco as the slimy Raul, Jose Baviera as Leandro Gomez, Luis Beristain as Cristian, and Antonio Bravo as Sergio Russell. The standout performances come from the characters who try to maintain control and such. Claudio Brook is great as Julio, the butler who tries to do duties while being the one to break a pipe so everyone can get water and such. Cesar del Campo is excellent as Colonel Alvaro, a man who tries to remain calm only to have a brief moment where he becomes unhinged by the claustrophobia of the room.
Enrique Rambal is brilliant as Edmundo Nobile who is trying to maintain calm as he becomes an unlikely target while dealing with the fact that he might be guilty. Silvia Pinal is fine in her role as Leticia though she didn't have much to do in the middle of the film. Pinal's haunting performance in the film's final act is mesmerizing as she tries to pull everyone together to think about the first night. The film's best performance goes to Augusto Benedico as Dr. Conde, the film's moral conscience who keeps his cool and try to examine everything while helping people out and tell them to not panic.
Though not as great as Viridiana, El Angel Exterminador is still a mesmerizing yet haunting film from Luis Bunuel. With memorable performances from Silvia Pinal, Augusto Benedico, Enrique Rambal, Cesar del Campo, and Claudio Brook. It's a film that is truly essential to Bunuel's rich filmography. Those new to Bunuel will get a great example of his surreal take on the world while taking potshots at the upper class. In the end, for a great ensemble film that has its characters be stripped down to the core and give them a taste of surrealism. El Angel Exterminador is the film to watch.
Luis Bunuel Films: Un Chien Andalou - L'Age d'Or - Land Without Bread - (Gran Casino) - (The Great Madcap) - Los Olvidados - (Susana) - (La hija de engano) - (Mexican Bus Ride) - (A Woman Without Love) - (El Bruto) - (El) - (Illusion Travels by Streetcar) - (Wuthering Heights (1954)) - Robinson Crusoe (1954) - (The Criminal Live of Archibaldo de la Cruz) - (El rio y la muerte) - (Cela S'apelle l'Aurore) - (Death in the Garden) - (Nazarin) - (La Fievre a El Pasao) - (The Young One) - Viridiana - Diary of a Chambermaid - Simon of the Desert - Belle de Jour - (The Milky Way) - Tristana - The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie - (The Phantom of Liberty) - (That Obscure Object of Desire)
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