Director : Luis Buñuel
Screenplay : Julio Alejandro de Castro and Luis Buñuel
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1961
Stars : Silvia Pinal (Viridiana), Francisco Rabal (Jorge), Fernando Rey (Don Jaime), José Calvo (Beggar), Margarita Lozano (Ramona), José Manuel Martín (Beggar), Victoria Zinny (Lucia), Luis Heredia (Beggar), Joaquín Roa (Beggar), Lola Gaos (Beggar), María Isbert (Beggar), Teresa Rabal (Rita)
Luis Buñuel’s Palme d’Or-winning Viridiana is famous for many reasons, particularly for its sharp-witted critique of Catholic piety running aground on the ugly shores of humanity, which reaches a climax involving an iconic visual mockery of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, all of which was made right under the noses (and at the invitation of) the fascist Franco regime and the conspiring Catholic Church. However, the scene I like the best doesn’t involve blasphemy or controversy, but rather a simple observation.
A man sees a poor, tired dog tied up and forced to trot behind a peasant’s horse-drawn carriage. He attempts to convince the peasant to put the dog in the empty carriage, but he is rebuffed with “Only people ride in the carriage.” To save the exhausted dog, the man buys him from the peasant, and as he walks off, the camera pans around to find another carriage riding by the opposite direction with an equally exhausted dog tethered to the back. In that single blackly comic, yet profoundly sad scene, which really has nothing to do with the narrative proper, Buñuel movingly and efficiently summarizes his view of the cycle of human cruelty and the near impossibility of doing anything about it.
When Buñuel made Viridiana, he had been in self-imposed exile from his native Spain for decades. Spain’s fascist dictator General Francisco Franco invited him to return and make a film on his own terms as a way of bolstering the flimsy façade that his regime supported the Spanish arts, which Buñuel did with a vengeance; in every sense of the term, he bit the hand that fed him, grinning the whole time. Borrowing the basic themes and storyline of Nazarín (1959), which he had made just two years earlier, Buñuel set out to show in his own darkly humorous fashion the failure of Christian charity, which resulted in the film being banned outright by the Franco regime and the Vatican.
The eponymous character, played beautifully by Mexican actress Silvia Pinal, is a dedicated nun who, on the eve of taking her vows, is summoned to the home of her wealthy uncle and benefactor, Don Jaime (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey), who is part of Spain’s decaying aristocracy and a man she hardly knows. Don Jaime tries to convince Viridiana to stay at his home and become his wife; when all else fails, he goes so far as drugging her and trying to convince her that he deflowered her in the night, thus making it impossible for her to take her vows. She ends up leaving, but before she can take the bus back to the convent, she is informed that Don Jaime has committed suicide.
Don Jaime leaves his estate to Viridiana and his son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal), who he has otherwise all but abandoned. Jorge is practical and business-like, while Viridiana wants to use the estate for a good cause, namely to house a group of sad-sack beggars she rounds up in town. Despite all her best intentions, the rowdy vagabonds resist her influences, taking food and shelter, but refusing to “improve” themselves through work and commitment. This culminates in the film’s notorious dinner sequence, when the beggars stage an elaborate banquet in the estate’s main dining room, trashing it in the process and then physically assaulting Viridiana when she returns.
Viridiana is most commonly described as being “blasphemous,” which shouldn’t be too surprising considering that Buñuel has a long track record of mocking religion, particularly Catholicism, in his films (one can stretch out the lineage of mocking images in his films, from the priests dragging the dead donkeys in 1929’s Un chien andalou to the monks playing poker with their religious baubles in 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty). Yet, the film didn’t strike me as blasphemous at all, especially the visual pun on The Last Supper, which is, after all, simply a painting.
Most read the film as essentially making fun of Viridiana’s efforts, noting that she has a naïve view of the world that is bound to be crushed. In a sense this is true, but the film is also just as ruthless in its mockery of the beggars, a group that in most other films would be viewed as downtrodden victims of society. In typically subversive fashion, Buñuel rejects an easy liberal viewpoint and instead portrays them as self-serving, in-fighting, pernicious cads without a redeeming bit of good sense within them; it is almost as if they deserve their lot in life. There is no doubt that Buñuel is being critical of his poor heroine’s deluded ideas about how charity works, but he is no less critical of those receiving said charity. The failure of humanity takes place on both ends of the spectrum, from the pious to the fallen.
|Viridiana Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||May 23, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new high-definition anamorphic transfer came from a 35mm duplicate negative, and while it generally looks great, the source material introduces some inescapable problems. Digital restoration has resulted in a generally clean image, although there are some shots that seem softer than the rest and are marred by vertical lines (there is a large one along the lefthand side of the frame during the opening credits). Clearly, the original materials for this film have not been as well maintained as others, but Criterion’s transfer and consistently meticulous restoration work had made it look as good as possible. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical soundtrack print, and digitally restored, sounds fine. There is some slight ambient hiss, but nothing distracting or unexpected for a film of its age.|
|While Criterion’s most recent DVD release of a Buñuel film, The Phantom of Liberty, was close to bare-bones, Viridiana boasts a solid set of supplements, beginning with 40 minutes of excerpts from a 1964 episode of the French television series Cinèastes de notre temps, which focuses on Buñuel’s early career. Although there are no clips from his films for legal reasons, there are several interviews with Buñuel, as well as with his friends, producers, and even his sister. It is an enlightening look at a great and complicated filmmaker (sometimes Buñuel’s assertions are amusingly contrasted with what his friends have to say). There are also two new video interviews, one with actress Silvia Pinal, who talks about how she met and eventually worked with Buñuel, and another with Richard Porton, editor of the film journal Cinéaste, who offers a rich analysis of the film in only 12 minutes. Also included on the disc is the original U.S. theatrical trailer, and the insert booklet contains an essay by Michael Wood and an interview with Buñuel excerpted from the book Objects of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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