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The Exterminating Angel

El Angel Exterminador, 1962, Spanish/Mexico

There are at least three stories behind the film’s title, all related to Christianity. The best-known one is that Buñuel borrowed the title from an unfinished play by his friend, the playwright José Bergamín (“If I saw The Exterminating Angel on a marquee, I’d go in and see it on the spot”). Bergamín agreed since the title was in the public domain: it was from the Book of Revelation.

Another theory – from Gerald Brenan's The Spanish Labyrinth – is that the film is named for the Society of the Exterminating Angel, a 19th century Catholic group (“death squad” would be more accurate) created to kill Spanish liberals. It allegedly had the patronage of the then Bishop of Osma – which sheds a different light on the film’s ending.

A third, probably unrelated case, is that of French pirate Jacques de Sores, nicknamed “L’Ange Exterminateur” for attacking and burning Havana on the orders of King Francis I in 1555. He was disappointed to find far less gold than he expected, and laid waste to the countryside out of frustration. More pertinently, he is said to have organized a play “to insult the Pope” and, in 1570, murdered 40 Jesuit missionaries and threw their bodies into the sea off Tazacorte, in the Canary Islands.

What about the exterminator and the exterminated? At the premiere of his opera based on the film, Thomas Adès held that “the guests suddenly experience an absence of will. What gets exterminated by some force — either internal, imposed or both — is the will to act.” A reviewer concurs: “What is the exterminating angel if not human physicality itself – everything that makes us alive, and mortal?” Another interpretation is that the angel is “l’Ennui”: it portrays “charming gossip, entertainment, intrigues, liaisons, feuds…” and, though it is set in Francoist Spain, it “could have been set in 1862, or even 1762, with almost nothing changed except a few costume alterations and the substitution of candles for the electric lights.

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