Luis Buñuel (writer and director) El Ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel),
adapted from a cinedrama by Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza, Los Náufragos de la Calle de la Providencia, based on a play by José Bergamin / 1962
Luis Buñuel The Exterminating Angel (film script) (Los Angeles, Green Integer, 2003)
“Ever since Thucydides wrote his history, it has been on record that when the angel of death sounds his
trumpet the pretences of civilization are blown from men’s heads into the mud like hats in a gust of wind.”
—George Bernard Shaw
A large dinner is under preparation as Edmundo, the Marqués of Nobile, and his wife Lucia are soon returning to their mansion for an after-opera dinner with a couple dozen of their friends. A servant, Lucas, suddenly determines to leave and as he attempts his escape is apprehended and fired by the Majordomo. Two kitchen maids and the sous-chef also feel a compulsion to leave the house: “I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t stand it anymore,” says Camila. As the two women attempt their exit they are met with the returning host and hostess along with the dinner guests; they hide in the nearby room while the guests move up the stairs to divest themselves of their coats and wraps.
Lucia, leaving her guests in order to check on the rest of the meal, is met by a large brown bear, another of her intended surprises. Later, a small group of sheep are witnessed; another intended surprise? If wasting food and intermingling live animals while eating dead beasts is “chic,” Buñuel humorously suggests, we might do well to question these sophisticates’ values. It is little wonder that, as Julio reports to Lucia, the servants have inexplicably deserted the house.
If the film you are going to see strikes you as enigmatic or
incongruous, life is that way too. …Perhaps the best explanation
for Exterminating Angel is that, ‘reasonably, there isn’t one.’”
Indeed, a movie without explanation is a marvelous conceit—an idea that might have been far preferable to the somewhat ludicrous attempts at explanation of the film, one in which Nobile’s house is compared to the Hebrews in the desert ultimately released from the curse of God; another that it is one of the guest’s, Leticia’s, fantasy; a third that it is a film about the inability of satisfying a desire.
After several days, during which outsiders have also found it impossible to penetrate the gate of Nobile’s estate, the servants magically reappear at the entrance. Within their prison, which looks now more like a pigsty than an elegant drawing room, the former party-goers circle about until Leticia perceives that all have amazingly realigned themselves back into their very positions of the first night, as they listened to a piano performance by Blanca. At Letitia’s urging, they repeat their conversation of that evening, and are suddenly released, staggering as a small group of survivors out of the house at the very moment the servants cross through the gate into the yard.
Perhaps we should end there, as the filmmaker argues, without an “explanation.” Yet the film seems to demand one, calling up many possibilities of meaning— which is why, in large, this motion picture is so compelling. Without further commenting on the various interpretations mentioned above, I would argue that the film is quite clear to me in its political commentary: that, while Spain’s Fascist government is busy destroying its citizens, the aristocrats and clergy find themselves unable to act or speak out, revealing, accordingly, their own underlying bestial natures. The bear and sheep that move about the estate, as well as the sheep that are seen later outside the cathedral, represent both the brute violence and stupid placidity of these people of great wealth and power.
Los Angeles, December 29, 2003