Greg Stallings on “The Exterminating Angel” and the Effects of Quarantine

Associate Professor Greg Stallings (Spanish & Portuguese) may have thought that picking The Exterminating Angel to be shown at the International Cinema seemed random, but the theme of quarantine that runs throughout the movie has become especially poignant in today’s environment. 

I was asked late last year to suggest a Spanish film for the International Cinema Winter 2020 schedule. I recommended Luis Buñuel’s surrealist masterpiece, The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, Mexico, 1962). Little could I have known at that time how prescient this movie selection would be for the upcoming semester. 

With The Exterminating AngelBuñuel returns to the central theme of his earliest films co-directed with Salvador Dalíusing surrealism to lampoon the bourgeoisie. For reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension, the characters in the film find themselves trapped in a mansion following an elegant dinner party. Their bourgeois manners quickly deteriorate to the bestial level of the animals (some sheep and a bear) around them.  

The plight of people trapped in a house under a mysterious quarantine may have seemed like uncomfortable subject matter for my students during the present crisis. Yet when polled at the end of the semester, these students chose The Exterminating Angel, which they watched as part of the COVID-19 era Virtual International Cinema calendar, as their favorite IC film of the year. They appreciated what British composer Thomas Adès and Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (each independently adapting it for the musical stage in recent years) admire about the filmnot just an exposé of the worst tendencies of human behavior under quarantine but a strategy for finding humor (what Sondheim identifies as a “cheerful view”) during such catastrophe.

Although The Exterminating Angel skewers the politics and pretensions of the upper class by following the dinner party’s descent into a Lord of the Flies kind of barbarism, the film offers two examples of how to act well during a disaster: a woman nicknamed Valkyrie comforts the other trapped guests through small acts of kindness (in a famous scene, she blindfolds a sacrificial lamb in order to minimize its suffering), while the owner of the mansion, Edmundo Nobile, maintains a nobility of spirit in spite of the degradation that surrounds him. 

This generosity of spirit mixed with subversive humor characterizes the mood of present-day Spaniards, who, trapped for weeks in their apartment housesare heard throughout the country every night clapping—and banging on pots and pansfrom their balconies as they alternately honor healthcare workers and mock the government’s handling of the pandemic.