Film Follies, Subtitle Subversive

Subtitle Subversive- El ángel exterminador

Some films are straightforward. They have a plot, characters, scenery, and operate under a basic premise that what you see is what you get. Some films are not at all straightforward and require multiple viewing and an extensive amount of thinking after the fact to discern and interpret their true meanings or if the film had any meaning at all. Luis Buñuel’s El ángel exterminador certainly falls into the latter category. A surrealist indictment of Franco’s Spain, the movie is a masterclass of satire and a high watermark of Spanish cinema. Which is why I’ve made it the subject of this month’s Subtitle Subversive.
The premise of the film is simple enough, a who’s who group of Spanish high society arrive for a dinner party and find they cannot leave. No explanation for why they are stuck is given but whatever force is keeping them in is also keeping away anyone who might rescue them from their predicament. The longer the guests remain trapped the more they abandon logic and courtesy and give in to paranoia, mania, and despair. Highbrow society members succumbing to their more base instincts when put in a high-pressure situation is hardly an original concept in the world of storytelling but the subtlety with which Bunuel guides his characters towards their inevitable fall is what makes this film stand out in the annals of history. That and the film’s humor.
Because make no mistake this film is a comedy. A dark, biting, indictment of the post-war Spanish ruling class, but a funny one. There are bears and sheep and pratfalls. All of which are not thought to be funny on their own but rather achieve their soft chuckle through the absurdity of the context in which they take place.
El ángel exterminador is also one of those films that gets better after multiple viewings as you pick up on the small movements, the bits of foreshadowing, and the repeated themes that permeate the action. But be warned, there is no guarantee of improved clarity after these multiple viewings while there is every possibility that with each new viewing you will find yourself evening farther from the meaning which you seek.
There is so much more I could tell you about this film and its director. I could point out the influence of Salvador Dali on Bunuel’s early work that after a prolonged absence resurfaces here. That it came at the end of the director’s Mexican exile and at the start of his surrealist renaissance that came late in his life upon his return to Europe. Or the prominent use of dinner parties throughout Brunuel’s work. But I am going to chose to refrain from going into all that. Because those things are just outside noise that will distract you from your own interpretation of this profoundly important piece of film-making and because I believe that information will be of far more use to you after having seen the film than it is going in. Suffice to say that perhaps no film we have looked at thus far has worked quite so hard to claim the mantle of Subversive. And that makes it a worthy addition to the Subtitle Subversive collection.

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