Eradicate the bourgeoisie and religion

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According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term bourgeoisie refers to the capitalist class that owns most of society’s wealth and means of production. In other words, the one percent. Given that this term is of French origin, it seems appropriate as it is usually associated with Spanish-Mexican director Luis Buñuel. The relationship between Luis Buñuel and this term is not because he is part of the upper class. On the contrary, Buñuel is known for attack the rich alongside religion in the majority of his films.

It is important to note that Buñuel experienced three great eras in his career, each linked to the country in which he lived: Spain, France and Mexico. While living in each country, there is a recurring theme that runs through most of his films: Buñuel’s critique of the rich and religion. As a director living in a foreign country, he delves into the issues around him. This is how he managed to make one of the most important Mexican films of 1950 titled Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned). The film portrays extreme poverty and violence among children in Mexico City. Ten years later, he attacks the people who are part of the problem in The Exterminating Angel.

The premise of the film is quite simple by modern standards. High class individuals are trapped in a room with an unknown entity preventing them from leaving. While the film is more of a surreal fantasy, the premise just screams horror. Take a look at other claustrophobic horror films such as Lowering, The thingand [REC]. They’re all horror movies set in different settings with essentially the same premise: no one can leave because of an outside force.

What Buñuel does here is set up a horror movie as he assembles a full cast of high-profile Mexican actors of the era such as Claudio Brooks, Silvia Pinal and Augusto Benedico. Over the course of 95 minutes, we witness these respectable and elegant actors descend into madness, conflict and violence.

Trapped by societal rituals

While the film may seem simple, Buñuel’s vision becomes complex with one factor: the implementation of repetition. There are many instances where history intentionally repeats itself, whether it’s the recreation of specific scenes or bits of dialogue repeated over and over. All of this is used to criticize the social rituals of the elite.

The characters in The Exterminating Angel wouldn’t even be in the predicament of the story if they didn’t appear at another elite gathering due to an obligation. One of the most obvious rehearsal sequences is at the beginning of the film when the cast enters the mansion. The scene is then repeated, only it is shown from a slightly higher camera angle. On my first viewing, I just assumed it was an error left by the editor. But, I had no idea that I was about to enter the world of Buñuel’s surreal films. As The Exterminating Angel was progressing and the other 20 instances of repetition were occurring, the intentionality of it all seemed clear.

Repetition is an integral part of the story and not just used as a hypnotic flair. It is used to show how the routine confines the upper class. The bourgeoisie locked themselves in this room and they didn’t even know it. There are several shots in the film where the camera is placed on the other side of the dark dining room. Visitors are seen trapped in the room slowly pacing the door frame. As they wonder what unseen entity is keeping them in, the deterioration of the bourgeoisie takes over.

As the room begins to disintegrate, so do the spirits of the characters present. Buñuel does an excellent job describing the social etiquette the bourgeoisie always tries to follow even in times of peril by keeping their false inclinations towards each other. Each character has a bit of screen time to show it off. As hunger increases and patience wanes, we see how quickly this group of people turn against the “community” they insist is genuine.

For example, courteous attitudes when handing over the only brush available with a Pan Am smile are contradicted by a snobby comment to whoever is nearby. What begins at first as a vocal outburst against their disgust for each other quickly evolves into manic panic and violence. The sheer brutality of man is put on a pedestal.

Buñuel contradicts this with a tame black bear. Amidst the destruction caused by mankind, this peaceful bear, generally considered barbaric and savage, minds his own business. He walks among the destruction caused by the upper class. He never looks at them once or even acknowledges their presence.

religious dismantling

On top of that, there are many strata attacking organized religion. This is done in typical Buñuelian fashion. His past Mexican films are evident in their critique with a 1950s Christ-like priest in Nazarin and a fight between a religious man and the devil in desert simon. The Exterminating Angel is no different. The film’s opening image is of a Catholic church whose bells are constantly ringing. Not only does this provide an ominous atmosphere, but Buñuel also already establishes a correlation between religion and the wealthy, and how societal rituals and fake communities are intrinsically linked.

Buñuel also uses the bizarre scenario to show how people who are afraid resort to religion. That’s why, when all hope is lost, some members turn to the luck of chicken feet. It is no coincidence that it is The Virgin, also known as The Valkyrie played by Silvia Pinal, who comes to their rescue. This can be seen as a prototype of the sex death horror trope made popular in 1980s slasher movies. There is nothing but pure religious beliefs behind this “last girl” who helps the rest of the characters and herself to escape.

The film’s final scene showcases Bunuel’s creative style of rehearsal. We see all the remaining figures of the bourgeoisie in front and in the center of a mass. They are silent, shaken and resort to religion after their ordeal. But it is not easy to get away from the external force. The same premise follows, but this time in a church. None of the members, including the priest, has the will to leave. Our final image is the herd of sheep entering the church and the bells ringing, just like at the beginning of the film. The film is now on loop as are the characters.

If you’ve never seen a Buñuel film, this would be a great entry point. It’s simple while using surreal images. By the time Buñuel entered his French era of cinema, surreal traits were in full swing. His films have become more abstract and with them this era has become more difficult to decipher. But The Exterminating Angel the simplicity leaves plenty of room to interact with the film and appreciate the fall of the bourgeoisie and organized religion.


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