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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.

Movie banner "The Exterminating Angel"


With The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel returns to the central theme of his earliest films co-directed with Salvador Dalí, using 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.

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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 film: not 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 a catastrophe.

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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.

Movie Scene Shot

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

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September 23, 2020 12:00 AM
This year, Dr. John Rosenberg received the UFLA Friend of the Profession award, which is given to individuals who have advanced the study of world languages in Utah.
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July 05, 2020 12:00 AM
Professor Scott Alvord has been appointed as an interim chair for the Department of Spanish & Portuguese while current department chair Jeff Turley recovers from a medical procedure. Alvord and Blair Bateman have been leading the department for the past three months in their capacities as associate chairs.
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May 17, 2020 12:00 AM
PROVO, Utah (May 19, 2020) — Professor Jeffrey Turley has been reappointed as department chair for the Department of Spanish & Portuguese. Turley has served in this capacity since May 2017 and will continue serving for another term in this position.
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