To the surprise of all concerned, Luis Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel" has turned into a modest hit at the Town Underground. This is an encouraging sign if Chicago is to develop another first-run outlet for good foreign films. The Town will hold "Angel" at least another week, possibly two, before opening Orson Welles' "Falstaff."
That provides me with an excuse to speculate again about the meaning of Bunuel's bitter, disturbing film. The plot involves a group of aristocratic guests who come to dinner - and then find themselves incapable of leaving the room. They bed down for the night, and the dinner party turns into a grotesque captivity lasting several days.
Three guests die. Others have hallucinations, attack each other, discuss philosophy, evoke black magic, and in general do everything except try to leave the room. Outside, the police and the army are equally powerless to walk in.
Some reviewers have gotten hung up in asking why the people don't simply walk out. After all, there's nothing to stop them. The solution, I think, is that they're not really in a room. Bunuel has used the room and its prisoners to represent modern society.
On one level, the society is Spain, and Bunuel is attacking its political and social isolation and the power still held by Franco, the fascists, the aristocrats and the right-wing elements of the church. There is no reason why the people of Spain cannot simply "walk out," just as there is no reason why the rest of Europe cannot simply walk in. But that never happens, and Spain remains an intellectually closed nation, in Bunuel's opinion.
On another level, however, Bunuel is probably commenting on the traps modern life sets for all of us. This has been one of his themes for many years: We are prevented from moving around freely because society resents free spirits.
But more importantly, we become our own prisoners. No one else says we cannot leave the room but, well, somehow we just don't FEEL like walking out. We stay. We get into a rut. We know things are wrong. We know we are getting older and not accomplishing much. We know we are selling out and that there is a smell in the air. But we stay.
And that is probably the real reason the people in Bunuel's room cannot leave. Not because of the Spanish government or anything simple like that, but because they lack the intellectual guts to walk out.
At the end, the people finally get out of the room by recreating exactly what they did on the first night.
This is black magic, surrealism, group therapy or anything else you want to call it. But it is also the simplest thing in the world, according to Bunuel. If you want to get out of the room, all you have to do is back up and start again. Or, as someone else once put it, you have to become a new man.