The Exterminating Angel

El Angel Exterminador, 1962, Spanish/Mexico

“No one could accuse Buñuel of being cheerful, but comedy is never about rebuilding anyway, only tearing down. And nobody could tear down like Buñuel.”

- Critic Jake Cole's review of The Exterminating Angel

For the “anti-fascist, anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois” Buñuel, Angel was a parable on “la condición burguesa” (the bourgeois condition). A typical reading is that the house stands for Francoist Spain, and the guests represent the ruling class with an unhealthy dependence on the proletariat: they can’t even get past the doorway without help. They give in to what would be anathema to them in better conditions – savagery and chaos. Take this conversation, the morning after the dinner:

Ana: “A third-class train was squashed like a concertina. And inside, what carnage! The sight didn’t upset me. I must be insensitive.”

Silvia: “Yet you fainted at the bier of Prince Lourcat.”

Ana: [laughs] “There’s no comparison. How could one be insensitive to his grandeur in death? He had such a noble profile.”

Rita: “I think the lower orders are insensitive to suffering. Have you ever seen a wounded bull? It’s impassive.”

Leandro: “What’s so funny?”

Francisco: [laughing] “I was thinking… what if I pushed you into the other room?”

Leandro: “I’d kill you.”

They go on to fight for water, steal one another’s belongings, and become “not more contrite but more cruel, at length demanding the murder of their host.” At this point, Dr. Conde urges the bloodthirsty guests to “[t]hink of the terrible consequences of [their] actions. This won’t be the last vile act. It means the disintegration of human dignity. It’s bestial.”

 

Though we never know its details, Lucía’s planned entertainment with the bear and the three sheep could represent class struggle – the former is left alone, and the latter are killed for food. (Leticia, the most compassionate guest, blindfolds the last sheep as if it were a condemned man.) The film also ends with a flock of sheep entering a church. In true surrealist fashion, Buñuel restored the word “flock” to its original meaning: the sheep are the people of Spain, “hiding from their doom in the Church and getting torn apart by the wealthy.”

It is hinted that animalism is the guests’ only way out – the bear and the sheep roam the mansion as they please – but they refuse to accept that they have stooped to that level. When the group sees the bear swinging on a chandelier just outside their room, Francisco begins laughing hysterically:

The Nóbiles live on Calle de la Providencia (Providence Street), an actual Mexico City address. In Christianity, “providence” is the doctrine that God continuously maintains the universe and its natural order, but does the latter include the class system and character traits? It is telling that a piano piece by a composer called Paradisi plunges the guests into a temporary purgatory.

 

Buñuel, an agnostic and a lifelong Communist, also shows the “opium of the people” at work. A delirious Leonora, after eliciting a promise from the doctor to accompany her to Lourdes, insists that he buy her “ a washable rubber Virgin.” Lucía promises to offer a Te Deum if the guests are freed: once the mass is over, nobody, not even the clergy, can leave the church. The film thus combines both Buñuel’s preoccupations – religion and politics – to depict “divine vengeance against a corrupt elite that is incapable of extricating itself from its torpor.”

© 2021 by Shwetant Kumar.