Exterminating Angel, The (1962): Bunuel’s Provocative Surreal Film

This provocative and surreal work is one of Luis Buñuel’s most philosophically profound films. 

A wry assault on bourgeois mores and manners, “The Exterminating Angel” concerns a group of guests who cannot bring themselves to leave an elegant dinner party.

The film has been compared by some critics to two of the most compelling dramas of the twentieth century, which also deal with isolation, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” Like Beckett’s play, references to the Christian tradition are of central importance to the film, as its title denotes, and, like Sartre’s, Buñuel’s bourgeois characters discover that hell consists primarily of other human beings–or more specifically their friends and associates.

 

Yet Buñuel does not take refuge in the absurd. The film’s secondary theme of a rampant disease, one that underlies the characters’ isolation and alienation, suggests clearly that the collective infection is conformity. The yellow flag that flies throughout the film warns us that it is also highly contagious. For Buñuel, one of the society’s most toxic forms is religion, particularly the Catholic dogma. The infection is thus seen as the traditional Christian harbinger of death.

 

That conformity is the carrier of death is clear from the central situation, in which a group of aristocratic guests are, for some unexplained reason, entrapped in the drawing room of their hosts, unable to leave. But why?

 

The action of the film is limited to what could realistically happen within the confined space of a single room.   Buñuel’s ingenious creation of cinematic images overcomes the absence of an explicit narrative to create suspense and mystery from start to finish.  And at the end, the feelings of restlessness, frustration, and ennui experienced on screen by members of the group are also shared by the viewers off screen, attesting to the power and impact of the movie.

 

Running Time: 95 minutes