Let’s get stuck in a room.
The Exterminating Angel or El Angel Exterminador is a fantastic example of surrealist cinema with biting social commentary. Luis Bunuel’s vision is odd, fun, off putting in an oddly attractive way, and razor sharp.
We follow wealthy people as they come to Edmundo Nobile’s home for a fancy-pants party. As the guests begin to arrive, we see that the serving staff are leaving the mansion (and many are fired for needing to leave). The sole remaining butler tries to make do as the guests continue to eat and drink. Eventually, the party moves to the large lounge area with a piano—and the guests don’t seem to want to leave. They speak of leaving, but social obligation keeps them chatting until they all eventually fall asleep on the floor.
The next morning it becomes clear that the guest can’t leave and anyone in the room is now trapped. Likewise, people on the outside can’t enter the home. As the guests work to find out what is happening, they must face their own prejudices, ugliness, and paranoia.
Sharp directing and interesting characters make this puzzler fun to watch. The logical and illogical attempts to break free become increasingly reckless. The film is tricky, but it is worth watching. What you will think it all means might vary from viewer to viewer.
Potentially minor spoilers ahead.
You will certainly think about this one a day or two after. What the entrapment means is certainly up for debate, so my theory is by no means objective. The power dynamics are obvious: the serving staff upheld the household, and, in their absence, things went to hell. Further, the separation of power and class is on fully display.
Why the rich people are so rich is hard to determine, but none of them seem particularly likable. We see people falling into expected and socially demanded separate spheres inside and outside the mansion. How these systems trap individuals and limit any sort of social change is evidenced by how stagnant the interior of the mansion becomes.
What convinced me of this theory is a couple things. First, we see a child cross the threshold outside with no concern but turns back when frightened. Without the social knowledge of who goes where the child was able to pierce through the boundaries—albeit temporarily. The second aspect of the film that makes me think it focuses on social and class entrapment is the repeated cycles within the film. Depending on your version, you will see the houseguests enter twice. Other things are repeated without anyone noticing or caring. As long as the status-quo continues there is no point causing a disruption. Our unwillingness to accept change or get out of comfort zones is painfully explicit in the final sequences of the film.