Viridiana, by its creators’ general consensus, had been a very successful film, despite having been banned in Spain, where Buñuel had shot it. General Franco, honestly, hadn’t found it all that incendiary, but the powerful Spanish clergy, following the Vatican’s lead, were infuriated, and convinced Franco to forbid its presentation in Spain. It wasn’t until 1977 that Spaniards were allowed to exhibit the film.
Buñuel had made the acquaintance of Gustavo Alatriste a few years earlier in Mexico, and when the successful and wealthy Alatriste decided to invest in filmmaking (no doubt at the gentle urging of his wife, the actress Silvia Pinal), Buñuel was amenable to having Alatriste produce both Viridiana and his next film, which started out as The Castaways Of Providence Street, but was, upon script completion, titled The Exterminating Angel (El Ángel Exterminador) (Mexico, 1962). The castaways part was a reference to Gericault’s famous painting of The Raft Of The Medusa, but another writer friend of Buñuel’s had used The Exterminating Angel (a reference to Abaddon (in Hebrew), or Exterminus (in Latin) who was the King of the Locusts in Revelations, and the first harbinger of the destruction of the Earth’s population after the 144,000 are saved) as a title for a play he’d never finished. Buñuel appropriated the title with the writer’s blessing, and the rest is film history.
The story rests on a simple idea; having gathered at a wealthy couple’s stately home for an after-the-opera dinner, the hosts, their maître d’ and their guests, (19 people, altogether) find they cannot leave the music room they’d all gathered in after the meal. There are no physical barriers or supernatural force fields; they simply lose the will to proceed when they reach the wide open doorway that leads to the next room, individually and collectively. They settle in to the various chairs and sofas, find spots on the floor to stretch out, and spend the night, assuming they’ll just leave in the morning. But, much to the consternation of their hosts, they don’t. Or can’t. And nights turn to weeks, as a crowd gathers outside the house, cognizant of the fact that its inhabitants are trapped inside. But the people outside are no more able to enter the home’s entry gate than those inside are to walk out.
The situation lends itself to symbolic speculation, but Buñuel insists that the reasons for their imprisonment, their ‘shipwrecked’ state, are unimportant; it’s a surrealist device. What’s important to Buñuel is how these people function within that situation. The crisply-tuxedoed, stylishly coiffed-and-gowned haute bourgeoisie are generally stiff and pretentious at the start of the evening’s gathering, and Buñuel has some surrealist fun at their expense. The kitchen staff, inexplicably, already knows to start sneaking their way out of the house just before the guests arrive. Two of the male guests meet three times in fairly quick succession – the first is a warm introduction by a third, the second is them recognizing each other as old friends, and the third is an introduction by a third where they regard each other coldly, warily. The entrance of the guests themselves into the palatial house happens twice, while two escaping kitchen workers wait through both entrances in real time before leaving. The evening’s host, Edmundo Nobilé (Enrique Rambal) makes the same toast to the opera’s prima donna twice. When the first course is presented on a large silver salver, the waiter trips on his own feet and falls flat on his face, sending the food flying everywhere. The guests howl with laughter and derision, and assume it’s a prank-on-purpose. We think we’re sharing the hostess’ mortification (she’s Lucia de Nobilé [Lucy Gallardo]) as she marches to the kitchen. But, out of the guests earshot, she informs the maître d’, Julio (Claudio Brook) that one of her guests, the taciturn Mr. Russel, wasn’t amused, and that he should therefore cancel the planned entrance of a small bear and three goats that she had also arranged as a surprise. After dinner, they all retire to the music room, save for Leticia, “the Valkyrie” (Silvia Pinal), whom, as a lark or an omen, throws one of the dessert ramekins through the dining room window. “Some Jew passing by,” quips Leandro.
Up until now, everyone had been on their best behavior. After Blanca’s piano performance of a short sonata, their praise is effusive, even if a few of the comments (“Pity there was no harpsichord,” “Please play some Scarlatti next”) seem damning with faint praise. It’s here that the aforementioned third not-so-friendly introduction, between Cristián Ugalde and Leandro Gomez occurs – yet another hint of unpleasantness to come. Cristián’s wife, Rita (Patricia Morán) is discussing her pregnancy with Lucia and another guest – “This is the fourth, isn’t it?” Cristián is asked. “Actually, I’ve lost track, ma’am,” he deadpans. Lucia arranges to meet her secret lover, the retired-hero-Colonel Alvaro (César del Campo) in the bedroom, unconcerned that Edmundo might interrupt them. Edmundo and Lucia, as the hosts, are somewhat put-off that their guests (Lucia’s lover among them) are slowly turning the music room into a campsite, but Edmundo, the ever-gracious host, indulges it amiably.
When everyone wakes in the morning, Lucia has Julio serve dinner leftovers for breakfast, and coffee. Julio, unlike the others, has been going back and forth between rooms performing his duties, but upon serving the breakfast spread, he finds he can’t leave the room, either; he and Blanca, the pianist, slump onto chairs just inside the doorway, struck with a mysterious despair.
One of the projects Buñuel was considering before Viridiana was an adaptation of William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies. The Raft Of The Medusa is an obvious touchstone here; Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (Huis Clos) is also cited as an influence. “Hell is other people (L’enfer, c’est les autres)” is a sentiment Buñuel might pass along here as well, but without Golding’s or Sartre’s earnest humorlessness. Civility disintegrates quickly and consistently as the days, then weeks, go by. A guest likens their predicament to a train crash she survived, whereupon a third-class car was crushed: “I think the lower classes are less sensitive to pain,” says Rita, in sympathy to her friend. When the bullying Raul (Tito Junco) accuses Edmundo of trapping them there deliberately, Leticia slaps him derisively. Days before, a young man decided the water in the plant vases was too funky – now the other guests note that the same young man drinks from them anyway. A small closet full of ceramic vases becomes the communal latrine, yet the women emerging from it have visions of mountain landscapes, flowing rivers and eagles passing overhead.
In the following days, the men take an antique axe and dig into the interior wall, exposing a water pipe for all of them to use; of course, letting the women drink first sets off another near-brawl amongst the men who aren’t interested in waiting. Mr. Russel’s heart gives out and he dies; the body is shuttled into another closet. Julio, at this point, offers to share the plateful of crumpled paper bits he’s eating. Doctor Carlos Conde’s patient, Leonora (Augusto Benedico and Bertha Moss, respectively), implores him to join her on a pilgrimage to Lourdes after they escape their ordeal in this house. “When we get to Lourdes, I want you to buy me one of those washable plastic Virgins. You will, won’t you?” A young, ardently devoted couple, who have missed their own wedding, commits suicide in one of the other closets, to the apparent dark amusement of many of the guests upon discovery, which seems a little inappropriate until it dawns on us, the viewers, that we’ve been having the same darkly amused sense of schadenfreude towards the whole situation that Buñuel has been regaling us with. And just when you think things might not be all that funny anymore, the bear and the goats get loose inside the house – when the goats enter the music room, it quickly becomes a barbecue pit (with furniture, paintings and musical instruments feeding he fire) while the bear shambles happily through the rest of the house.
The movie is tricky; obviously Buñuel is sending up the social constructs of his ‘castaways,’ and how their manners, rituals, co-dependence, condescension and prejudices entrap them, but there’s much more going on than simple symbols or allegories. There isn’t a reason in the world why any one of them can’t walk through that doorway, and yet none will, even for their own self-preservation. Nor will the friends, families and returning kitchen employees of those trapped within set foot on the grounds to discover what’s happening and/or lead them out. When they do finally figure out how to leave (a strategy that seems just as surreal as their reasons for staying in the first place), they all go home, clean up, and head for church (of course) to attend a mass that the Nobilés have arranged as a Te Deum (thanks for a specific blessing). When the Mass ends, the priests exit the chapel…except… they stop at the doorway. Looking behind them, the congregants, as well, show little impulse or interest in walking outside. And as the film ends, a flock of twenty or thirty sheep make their way to the church’s entrance…
On the whole, Buñuel was content with the film – Alatriste left him alone to make the film he wanted to make, a luxury that his previous producers, even Oscar Dancigers, had rarely afforded him. It was also his most forthrightly surrealist film since L’Age D’Or, 32 years earlier. Buñuel, though, like most serious artists, claimed he could only see mistakes and missed opportunities – he would have preferred to have shot the film in Europe, either London or Paris (the Mexican film industry was at a pretty low ebb in the early 60s), and Alatriste had been a little stingier with this budget than he’d been with Viridiana. But I suspect Buñuel couldn’t have helped but smile when Alatriste, watching the finished film, concluded, “I don’t understand a thing in it. It’s marvelous!”
In the BFI / Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll, The Exterminating Angel is 202nd with critics, 132nd with directors (a tie with Belle Du Jour). Buñuel is perennially in the conversation when people discuss their favorite films of all time, and The Exterminating Angel is always near the top of those conversations about Buñuel. He would make one more interesting film with Gustavo Alatriste and Silvia Pinal in Mexico, Simon Of The Desert in 1965, but next up on the Project is Diary Of A Chambermaid, more progress in Buñuel’s goal to return to exclusively European filmmaking.