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Movies  |  Reviews

The Exterminating Angel/Simon of the Desert

February 27, 2009  |  10:18am
The Exterminating Angel/Simon of the Desert

Release Date: Feb. 9

Director: Luis Buñuel

Writer: Buñuel; Buñuel and Luis Alejandro

Cinematographer: Gabriel Figueroa

Starring: Sylvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal; Pinal, Claudio Brook.

Studio/Run Time: The Criterion Collection, 93 mins., 45 mins.


Decades before Lost or even The Twilight Zone, director Luis Buñuel was creating hallucinatory experiences out of mundane reality, deranging the commonplace to sly, subversive effect. The peripatetic Spaniard invented surrealist cinema with his friend Salvador Dali in 1929, claiming a place in art history via the eyeball-slicing scandal of Un Chien Andalou. But the filmmaker drifted after that, failing to gain a foothold in either New York or Hollywood before finally establishing a middle-aged career shooting often melodramatic—and overlooked—commercial fare in Mexico.

The Exterminating Angel, from 1962, comes near the end of that phase, circles back to Buñuel’s creative origins, and prefigures one of his European arthouse classics, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The Criterion two-disc release offers an overdue chance to revel in Buñuel’s darkly comic style: Here is the existential crisis of a fancy dinner party undone when all the servants flee, dinner remains unserved, and the guests become trapped in an inexplicable limbo. The social order is shaken and chaos ensues! Cameos from a mysterious bear and a creeping severed hand (a Buñuelian trope that crawled all the way into David Lynch’s movies) ratchet up the weirdness. The release makes a one-two punch with Simon of the Desert, a short originally intended to be part of a multi-director trilogy. One of Buñuel’s funniest satires, it sends up the piety of the fabled saint, who stood atop a pillar in the desert for “six years, six months and six days.” Mexican star Sylvia Pinal (who played the title role in the anti-clerical classic Viridiana) returns as a seductive Satan, tempting Simon with her carnal charms, while the ascetic crustbucket grows ever more insufferable. Finally, the devil whisks him away to witness the anguish of the wicked in flames: an unforgettable coda. Hell, it seems, is a swinging discotheque! It’s a perfect Buñuelian irony.

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