The Passion of the Antichrist
The Passion of the Antichrist
Silvia Pinal in The Exterminating Angel…
there's a reason onetime Salvador Dali collaborator Luis Buñuel was Alfred Hitchcock's favorite filmmaker ever. Any film prof can tell you that no other director in history lives up to the now threadbare term "subversive" the way Buñuel does, but what sets him apart from a slew of avant-garde artists with similar ambitions is a virtue most academics wouldn't appreciate: He's never boring. Forced to work under commercial constraints during most of the Mexican exile that followed his early Surrealist days—with Franco in power, Buñuel's native Spain was no place for a man of his temperament—he knew better than poor Todd Solondz ever will that you can't truly scandalize an audience until you've gotten them interested in what's coming next.
Above all, Buñuel was peerless at creating situations—routine-looking ones that go slowly askew, bizarre ones he stages with earthy verisimilitude. Each kind gets a perfect showcase in the last two films he made in Mexico: 1962's masterly The Exterminating Angel and the 45-minute fable Simon of the Desert, both out on DVD this week in sterling editions from the Criterion Collection.
In case cinephiles need more bait—but why should they?—these two unassailable reasons to mourn b & w were also Buñuel's final work with legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. In case red-blooded ones do, both Angel and Simon feature Silvia Pinal—the star of Buñuel's Viridiana, already available from Criterion and nothing to sneeze at unless you're allergic to genius send-ups of the Last Supper. For my money, she's the sexiest actress he ever worked with, not to mention the one who understood best what he was up to. Since Pinal's competition includes Jeanne Moreau in Diary of a Chambermaid and Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour, the rest of you had better understand I'm not just whistling Dixie here.
In Exterminating Angel, she's Leticia, also known as "the Valkyrie"—the feistiest guest at a posh dinner party whose elegant guests, for reasons never explained, end up marooned in their host's living room because they're too unnerved to leave. As days go by in increasing squalor, with a closet that's decorated by a saint's icon now their improvised lavatory and a bear who was rented for their amusement roaming the halls, they lose everything but their sense of self-importance. One narcissistic pair of lovers opts for Wagnerian suicide; a musician's prize cello is broken up for firewood. Meanwhile, everyone else keeps squabbling about "solutions" to their dilemma that include someone's happy idea of killing the host. Buñuel later said that his main regret was not letting things deteriorate all the way into cannibalism.
At one level, the movie is a wonderful knock at privileged impotence. The first sign of trouble comes when the servants decamp, leaving only a stoic butler, played by future Simon star Claudio Brook, to cope with his masters' demands: If you picture The Addams Family's Lurch as reconceived by, say, Jean-Paul Sartre, then you've got the idea. At another level, it's both a mocking study of etiquette as civilization's last balsa bastion—these stuffed shirts are all turning monstrous, but violating decorum remains their sin of sins—and, as the closing shot reveals, a Twilight Zone metaphor for society itself (or the Catholic Church, in some ways this society's ultimate etiquette manual) as a prison. But the difference between Buñuel and less seasoned satirists is that he's under no illusion his targets won't outlive him. All caustic equanimity, he delights in their follies instead.
Much sparer but equally funny, Simon of the Desert gives us Brook as a hairy anchorite who's spent years perched atop a pillar for God's greater glory. He's ridiculous, but Buñuel the atheist respects him enough to teasingly show him performing one miracle. By dint of prayer, he restores a double amputee's hands, which the beneficiary accepts with a grunt before—in a bit that's among the most famous jokes in Buñuel's filmography—he puts his new mitts to good use by smacking his pesky daughter's head when she asks if they're the same as the old ones.
…and with Claudio Brook in Simon of the Desert.
Pinal gets the plum part of Satan, who shows up in multiple guises—a naughty schoolgirl baring her breasts, a bearded female Jesus, a passenger in a scuttling coffin that moves without human help—to tempt saintly Simon back down to wicked old earth. When the actress, who's still with us today and in great shape for a legend—interviews with the goddess herself are a highlight of both Angel and Simon's scrumptious DVD extras—reports that this was the film with Buñuel she most enjoyed making, one reason you believe her is that it shows in every scene.
That includes the jarring but strangely poignant finale Buñuel resorted to when lack of funding obliged him to abridge the full-length feature he'd planned. Out of the blue, Simon's tormentor transports him to a New York discotheque; as frantic teens cut rugs around them, they bicker like the old married couple that, theologically speaking, they are. But when a fed-up Pinal goes to join the dancers, the exultant yowl from her that ends the film could be the only time a performer in any Buñuel movie took control of its meaning away from him, because you couldn't care less that she's playing the Devil. She's Silvia Pinal, and no matter what side she's on, you'll sign up.