The Surrealism Movement was a great time in art history as the intent of the surrealist was to put aside rationalism and break open the imagination. Among my list of favorite surrealist artists that contributed to the illogical culture are painter Salvador Dalí, composer Erik Satie, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Although I’ve found no record of Luis Buñuel ever explaining the allegory and satirical topics in his 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, I’ve concluded that Buñuel’s intent was to place a spotlight on the bourgeoisie who, in spite of wealth, status, and refinement, become savages when unusual circumstances push them beyond a certain limit.
The Exterminating Angel, a surreal, black comedic-horror film, exposes the idiosyncrasies of a wealthy group of people who attend a formal dinner party at Señor Edmundo Nóbile and his wife, Lucia’s mansion. After dinner the guests move the party to the music room, and when the time comes for everyone to leave, they find themselves reluctant to exit the room. On the contrary, it is the servants who are insistent on leaving the house prior to dinner while anyone who’s outside is mysteriously kept from entering.
Throwing all decorum out the window, each guest either loosens their tie or gown, removes their jacket and shoes, and finds rest on the hosts’ couches, ottomans, chairs and floor. By morning it is clear that, for some inexplicable reason, they are not simply reluctant to leave the room but are literally unable to. While they begin to analyze their entrapment, they proceed in eating the small amount of leftovers from the night before.
As their predicament heightens, it becomes unclear how many days or weeks have gone by, but their true nature becomes more evident – animalistic, and because they are psychologically constrained to this room, they are consequently physically constrained as well. They become hostile, cruel, unforgiving, suicidal, murderous, thirsty, hungry, and hysterical. The doctor is the person applying a line of reasoning to the situation while managing to keep his wits and guide the other guests through their plight.
One of the times unconventional humor comes into play is when the guests see a small flock of sheep and a bear roaming the room. They don’t even realize how absurd the scene is, because at this point, it’s survival of the fittest, and all they see is sustenance. The guests slaughter and roast the sheep on fires made from floorboards, wooden instruments and furniture.
After some time one of the guests implicates Nóbile as the cause of their predicament and suggests that he is sacrificed. Nóbile then offers to take his own life but is interrupted by a young female guest who notices that they are all seated in the same positions as when they assume their entrapment began. She starts walking them through the events of the evening and realize that they are free to exit the room. Once they are outside, the guests see the servants, who had left the house on the evening of the dinner party, along with police and bystanders.
One of the most pivotal points of the movie comes at the end when the freed guests attend church at the cathedral. When the service is over, everyone in the church is trapped. This is when I realized that either the earlier episode was a practice run, or Buñuel is now placing the spotlight on the pious men and women who are hypocritically self-righteous. It is not entirely clear whether the guests who were trapped in the house are now trapped inside the church; they all seem to have vanished. The last scene of the film shows a flock of sheep walking toward the church.
The film is loaded with satire and symbolism, and we are left to guess as there are no definitive answers for all the allegory. One of the many roles of an artist is to provoke thought and emotion, reflect the times, and take you out of your comfort zone. This is precisely why I believe Buñuel to be one of the most brilliant artists of his time.