The Exterminating Angel

El Angel Exterminador, 1962, Spanish/Mexico

The Exterminating Angel’s defining characteristic is claustrophobia. The room has more objets d’art than people (seventeen, not counting three dead in cupboards), and feels empty only because it has nothing useful. The cupboards fulfill the guests’ need for privacy within an already enclosed space: they serve as restrooms, bedrooms, and, eventually, coffins – and an angel is painted on at least one of them.

Unlike Sidney Lumet’s 1957 adaptation of 12 Angry Men, in which the camera closes in on the characters as the film progresses and the tension mounts, Angel’s cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa depicts claustrophobia by tantalizingly showing us the outside world at key moments. Each transition from day to night is marked by thunderstorms, crowds, or policemen. A doorway draped with black curtains forms an invisible barrier between the classes; the camera is “frequently positioned at the far end of the empty salon, exaggerating the lonely distance to the crowded room, where the guests mill about like souls in limbo.” Only animals and trash can cross the barrier.

Music is almost an unseen character. Though the film has no background score, it opens with the sound of an organ, and ends with a mass. The guests return from the opera, at which one of them sang the lead role. Blanca’s piano playing begins and ends the nightmare: she starts with Chopin’s Waltz in E Minor, a typical salon piece, and moves to the Toccata from Paradisi’s Sonata No. 6, which she must play again at the very end to break the spell. And, of course, the guests are trapped in the music room.

The most overt use of non-diegetic sound is in a dream sequence of sorts: on the fourth night, we temporarily enter everyone’s heads. Raúl hears a woman screaming “Shut the window!” Rita dreams of her children. Leonora dreams of Hell. Edmundo hears music. Cristián hears either an alarm clock or factory machinery. Silvia hears a lamentation. We then see the Pope, and images of someone playing a violin (which morphs into a dummy head) with a saw superimposed over the thunderstorm outside. Perhaps no scene in the film comes closer to depicting the unconscious mind.

© 2021 by Shwetant Kumar.