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The Exterminating Angel – A Surrealist Treat

July 29, 2015 | By

The Exterminating Angel is a surrealist classic that contains a lot of signature elements that have come to be associated with Bunuel’s films, like the criticism of the bourgeoisie and the church.

Film Poster

Film Poster

The name of Luis Bunuel has become synonymous with surrealism. He was closely associated with the surrealist movement of the 1920’s and first came to notice for the short film Un Chien Andalou (1929) made in collaboration with the famous surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Since then he has given us classics like The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1970),  The Milky Way (1969),  Viridiana (1961), Nazarin (1959), etc. His 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel contains a lot of signature elements that have come to be associated with his films. It also falls in the handful of films that were shot by Bunuel in Mexico.

The film begins with a formal dinner party at the lavish mansion of Señor Edmundo Nobile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife, Lucia (Lucy Gallardo). As per the plot description in Wikipedia “After dinner the guests adjourn to the music room, where one of the women, Blanca (Patricia de Morelos), plays a piano sonata. Later, when they might normally be expected to return home, the guests unaccountably remove their jackets, loosen their gowns, and settle down for the night on couches, chairs and the floor.

By morning it is apparent that, for some inexplicable reason, they are psychologically, but not physically, trapped in the music room. Unable to leave, the guests consume what little water and food is left from the previous night’s party. Days pass, and their plight intensifies; they become quarrelsome, hostile, and hysterical – only Dr. Carlos Conde (Augusto Benedico), applying logic and reason, manages to keep his cool and guides the guests through the ordeal. One of the guests, the elderly Sergio Russell (Antonio Bravo), dies, and his body is placed in a large cupboard. Much later in the film, Béatriz (Ofelia Montesco)  and Eduardo (Xavier Massé), a young couple about to be married, lock themselves in a closet and commit suicide.

Guests having dinner with Edmundo Nobile at the head

Guests having dinner with Edmundo Nobile at the head

In the meantime, the guests manage to break open a wall, enough to break a water pipe. Eventually, several sheep and a bear break loose from their bonds and find their way to the room; the guests take in the sheep and proceed to slaughter and roast them on fire made from floorboards and broken furniture.

Dr. Conde reveals to Nobile that one of his patients, Leonora (Bertha Moss), is dying from cancer and accepts a secret supply of morphine from the host to keep her fit. The supply of drugs is however stolen by Francis (Xavier Loyá) and Juana (Ofelia Guilmáin), a brother and sister. Ana (Nadia Haro Oliva), a Jew and a practitioner of Kabbalah, tries to free the guests by performing a mystical ceremony, which fails.

Sheep gathered in the music room

Sheep gathered in the music room

Eventually, Raúl (Tito Junco) suggests that Nobile is responsible for their predicament and that he must be sacrificed. Only Dr. Conde and the noble Colonel Alvaro (César del Campo) oppose the angry mob claiming Nobile’s blood. As Nobile offers to take his own life, a young foreign guest, Leticia (Silvia Pinal) sees that they are all in the same positions as when their plight began. Obeying her instructions, the group starts reconstructing their conversation and movements from the night of the party and discover that they are then free to leave the room. Outside the manor, the guests are greeted by the local police and the servants, who had left the house on the night of the party and who had similarly found themselves unable to enter it.” [1]

The scene then shifts to a church where service is going on. The people inside the church suddenly find themselves unable to leave the premises in a similar way as the guests in the party. The film closes with riots in the street and a flock of sheep entering the church.

People getting stuck in the church

People getting stuck in the church

As obvious, the film is rooted in surrealism and can be interpreted at various levels. Bunuel’s communist views are widely known. Communism was perhaps as great an influence on him as surrealism. In this purview, the barrier represents the futility of the bourgeoisie lifestyle and their inability to break free of it. It is as unreal as the social standards set by them. Towards the end of the movie, Bunuel cleverly extends this concept to the entire papal system. The stagnancy of the church, with respect to their religious dogma, inflexibility of thought, etc are hinted at, which reflect Bunuel’s atheist views. This sort of criticism of the bourgeoisie and the church is a theme Bunuel touched upon in several of his films.

There is also an angle absurdism in the film. The absurdist philosophy states that the “efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information as well as the vast realm of the unknown make total certainty impossible. As a philosophy, absurdism furthermore explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, respond to it.” [2]

In his legendary essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (1949), Albert Camus  explained that “human beings, when confronted with the absurd, react in three ways.

* Suicide (or, “escaping existence”): a solution in which a person simply ends one’s own life. Camus dismissed the viability of this option. He stated that it does not counter the Absurd, but only becomes more absurd, to end one’s own existence.

* Religious, spiritual, or abstract belief in a transcendent realm, being, or idea: a solution in which one believes in the existence of a reality that is beyond the Absurd, which finally boils down to the belief in God. However, Camus regarded this solution, as “philosophical suicide”.

* Acceptance of the Absurd: a solution in which one accepts the Absurd and continues to live in spite of it. Camus endorsed this solution, believing that by accepting the Absurd, one can achieve absolute freedom, and that by recognizing no religious or other moral constraints and by revolting against the Absurd while simultaneously accepting it as unstoppable, one could possibly be content from the personal meaning constructed in the process” [3]

Taking this into context, the guests getting trapped in the music room can be thought of as an allusion to the absurd, since it defies normal reasoning and a cause-effect model. The young couple who commit suicide fall in the first category, since they figure death to be the only possible means of escaping the room.

Dr. Conde manages to keep his cool and tries to keep others in control. Nobile on the other hand, becomes ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. Both of them show signs of acceptance of the absurd in their own ways. They acknowledge the absurdity of the situation, yet create a personal meaning for themselves, which brings out the best in them.

The scene in the church towards the end of the film, suggests a cyclic representation of the second category. The papal system is faced with the absurd due to their belief in a transcendent being and it is expected that they would further delve into this philosophical suicide in an attempt to get out of it. Bunuel does not show us whether they will ever emerge out of the church.

There are certain other interesting elements to be noticed in the film, for example the scene of the guests entering is shown twice in slightly different ways. The introduction between the guests Leandro (José Baviera ) and Christian (Luiss Beristáin), is also shown thrice, each in a separate way. These may initially seem to be allusions to chaos theory (Commonly referred to as the butterfly effect, which holds that inconspicuous initial causes may result into massive effects and a small variation in the causes could produce a drastically different effect). However, regardless of the variations, the effect in the end remains the same, i.e the guests are trapped in the room. Hence on deeper analysis, this phenomena seems to be more aligned to the absurdist philosophy (due to elimination of cause).

From a theological point of view, the predicament of Nobile is possibly an allusion to the crucifixion of Christ; his attitude of sacrifice for others sake and the presence of Christian symbols like sheep strongly suggest this. Bunuel probably wanted to imply that Christ’s sacrifice was as pointless as Nobile’s would have been, had they not been guided by Leticia.

There are many other interpretations that can be made out of the film. It is therefore not a surprise that even after 50 years, it remains a benchmark for surrealist cinema and is an absolute a treat for surrealist film lovers.

Trailer of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel

[3] ibid.

More to read

Kiarostami, A Man Whom Iranian Cinema Is Proud Of
Theo Angelopoulos And Greece
Rituparno Ghosh – The ‘Enfant Terrible’ of Contemporary Indian Cinema

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Riddhiman Basu is an IT Professional living and working in Kolkata. He is very passionate about Philosophy, Music, Literature and World Cinema. He pursues film studies as a hobby. He is an amateur writer of short fiction, film related articles and a singer as well.
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