This article appeared in the February 2, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)
Luis Buñuel, who moved between his native Spain, France, the U.S., and Mexico, is often described as an international artist whose filmmaking and influence transcended borders. But his itinerancy was in part due to the legal and creative obstacles that he faced because of his political beliefs. Buñuel and his family traveled to Hollywood in 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, but decided to stay indefinitely when Francisco Franco’s fascist party prevailed in the conflict; Buñuel had worked as a propagandist and occasional spy for the defeated Republican government, so returning home would have been impossible.
Finding little success on the West Coast, he moved on to a stint as chief editor at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, where he supervised the production of anti-fascist propaganda films for distribution in Latin America as part of the government’s wartime effort to strengthen diplomatic relations in the region. His time in New York was cut short when he was pushed out of MoMA for his communist sympathies. After several more attempts to develop projects in Hollywood that failed due to a lack of studio interest—including a thwarted collaboration with fellow surrealist Man Ray—he left for Mexico City.
Some of his Mexican productions made between 1947 and 1965, such as Él (This Strange Passion) (1953) and The Exterminating Angel (1962), have been canonized alongside the finest surrealist works of his career; many others stick out as distinctly un-Buñuelian, their popular appeal and formulaic scripts marketed to local audiences. Although he directed 22 of his roughly three dozen films in his adopted country, that period in his filmmaking is often framed as an incongruous interlude between his avant-garde projects, created in interwar Paris, and the internationally produced, polished masterpieces that he crafted in Europe toward the end of his life. To define his oeuvre in relation to these shiny bookends makes Buñuel’s chapter in Latin America appear as a mere parenthetical blip, rather than a committed and remarkably prolific two decades in the career of the auteur.
The under-contextualization of this era is somewhat corrected by Buñuel in Mexico, a series playing at the Museum of Modern Art through February 20. With numerous 35mm prints sourced from Mexico City, it presents a broad view of Buñuel’s development as a filmmaker, both technically and artistically. Often produced with unrealistic shooting schedules and tight budgets, these works are incredible feats, staying close to Buñuel’s surrealist roots while borrowing many popular themes and genres from the contemporaneous Golden Age of Mexican Cinema: comedias rancheras, family melodramas, and working-class heroes.
Finding community with other expats, Buñuel soon met the Russian émigré Óscar Dancigers, who had been blacklisted from the American film industry and had set up a production company in CDMX. Dancigers financed the first feature that Buñuel made in Mexico: Gran Casino (1947), a musical set in Tampico during the early-20th-century oil boom. It starred two of Latin America’s leading entertainers, Argentine tango star Libertad Lamarque and Mexican ranchera singer Jorge Negrete. Although the producer was hoping for a financial hit with local audiences, the film was a box-office flop—but it provided Buñuel with a foothold in the commercial industry, as well as a point of departure. The teen crime film Los olvidados (1950) strayed as far from traditional romantic melodrama as possible, bridging the opposite worlds of neorealism and surrealism with its bleak portrayal of Mexico City’s poverty-stricken youth.
The following decade of Buñuel’s output was remarkably diverse, encompassing an adaptation of Robinson Crusoe (1954) and his favorite of his Mexican films, Nazarín (1959)—both of which achieved success on the international circuit—as well as lesser-known works that were only distributed regionally, such as The Daughter of Deceit (1951). During this period, Buñuel continued to develop many of his quintessential motifs, such as bourgeois paranoia and male fetishism. Although today it is regarded as a highlight of his career, Él was initially a critical and commercial setback, perplexing viewers with its depiction of a May-December romance between an upper-class man and a woman he meets at church. The protagonist’s extreme jealousy—an oblique metaphor for the psychological effects of capitalism—leads to full-blown delirium, climaxing in a hallucinatory sequence where he attacks a laughing priest.
Having renounced his Spanish citizenship in 1949, he remained in exile in Mexico until 1960, when a group of young Spanish filmmakers (including Carlos Saura) urged him to return to make a film in his home country. They hoped that Buñuel, who was already considered a cinematic legend, would breathe new life into Spanish cinema and become a rallying point for the national industry. As a new United Nations member state seeking cultural and political recognition, Francoist Spain allowed Buñuel’s return and agreed to provide his film with the 50 percent subsidy reserved for productions created in the “national interest.” In classic Buñuelian fashion, the filmmaker returned the favor with Viridiana (1961): a merciless attack on Spanish Catholicism, in which an unworldly nun converts her perverted uncle’s estate into a homeless shelter after he commits suicide. Viridiana’s condescending attempt at charity is thrown back in her face when her guests stage a bacchanalian orgy in the mansion, smashing plates, blasting Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” and taking a group photograph parodying Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper—a detail just perfectly on the nose. This scene, one of the most memorable of Buñuel’s career, was deemed blasphemous by the Vatican, and the film was banned in Spain until after Franco’s death.
Returning to Mexico, Buñuel followed Viridiana with another shot at the Christian elite, although this time he dealt a more cryptic blow. The Exterminating Angel finds Buñuel with fresh confidence and celebrity after the Viridiana scandal, asking audiences to suspend disbelief when they’re introduced to a dinner party of upper-class socialites who, for some inexplicable reason, find themselves unable to leave the room. Although the door remains open, the trapped partygoers grow increasingly desperate and depraved in Buñuel’s sharp critique of bourgeois paralysis, a persistent theme throughout his Mexican works, and one he would return to in his iconic post-Mexico film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
With its subversive plot and surrealist flourishes, The Exterminating Angel shows the artist wrestling with both market demands and his personal convictions. His early films, with their Freudian free-association, were funded by family members or friends and were succès de scandale, such as 1929’s Un chien Andalou (also included in the MoMA series), which begins with an infamous eye-slicing scene. It was in Mexico that Buñuel was forced to reckon with the material realities of the commercial film industry—to cater to studio interests while staying true to his principles. For a communist sympathizer during the Cold War, that was a fine line to walk. But through that process, his approach reached maturity, and his films never compromised their radical vision.
Dreams, delusions, absurdity, and anachronism are peppered throughout the films he made in Mexico, especially in the final work he executed there: Simon of the Desert (1965), which sees St. Simeon Stylites time-travel to a 1960s nightclub. Financing issues meant Buñuel had to cut his script in half (the resulting film runs just 45 minutes), and it was perhaps due to production frustrations—coupled with growing opportunities abroad—that Buñuel never made another film in Mexico. Despite Franco’s outrage at the Viridiana affair, the filmmaker was able to continue working in Spain, and much of his later work was co-produced by European countries. He spent months at a time shooting in Paris and Madrid, but retained his home in Mexico City until his death there in 1983.
Buñuel is remembered for his early role in crafting the language of cinematic surrealism with Salvador Dalí, but until the director’s time in Mexico, it existed only within avant-garde circles. During his period in Latin America, he mastered the conventions of filmmaking so he could subvert them. In doing so, he was able to bring surrealist cinema to the masses and pave the way for its widespread popularization during his final years.
Brittany Rosemary Jones is an art historian and writer.