The sound of a tolling church bell prefaces the bizarre events that are to unfold at a Mexican estate on Providence Street. An aristocrat appropriately named Nobile (Enrique Rambal) has invited several society friends to his home after the opera. But even as the dinner preparations are underway, the servants feel an inexplicable urge to depart from the premises. Despite the threat of dismissal, an anxious footman, Lucas (Angel Merino), is the first to leave. As the guests arrive and ascend the stairs to deposit their overcoats for the evening, two more servants attempt to escape, only to turn back when the guests emerge from the room. Or do they? Curiously, the entrance scene of the guests is repeated from a higher camera angle, and this time, the servants successfully escape.
The dinner is a great success. The hours pass. The people yawn and stretch out in exhaustion, yet no one leaves. Despite the mutual realization of the guests that they have clearly overstayed their welcome, no one wants to bear the distinction of being the first person to leave the dinner party. The veneer of civility erodes as desperation and distrust set in, and inevitably, the guests turn against their accommodating host, blaming him for their absurd, self-induced captivity.
Luis Buñuel uses sardonic humor and surrealist imagery as instruments of social indictment in The Exterminating Angel. In a culture defined by etiquette instead of humanity, Buñuel exposes the underlying artifice and hypocrisy of civilized society. In essence, it is the burden of the guests to perform the meaningless, Sisyphean rituals dictated by their privileged class: the repetitive introductions, the polite acceptance of social invitations, and the perpetuation of self-indulgent dinner parties. However, it is also the passive comfort of their social status that creates their claustrophobic isolation and complacent inertia. Stripped of their pretense, their innate behavior remains fundamentally instinctual, base, and primal. Ironically, it is a return to the ritual that liberates them from their artificial prison. The Exterminating Angel is a mesmerizing, richly symbolic, allegorical tale on the nature of human behavior: of masters and servants, of excess and want, and of fraternity and alienation.
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