Dir. Luis Buñuel, Spain/Mexico, 1961
by Leah Churner
Ensconced in scandal from production to release and beyond, Viridiana further cemented Luis Buñuel’s status as Surrealist legend. By returning after 20 years abroad in the United States and Mexico to make a film in Franco’s Spain, he exploited emotionality at both ends of the political spectrum, simultaneously handing the “emperor” his new clothes and forcing nay-saying liberals, who scolded the expatriate for coming home, to backpedal and recoil. Immediately after shooting, Viridiana was courted by Cannes, where it was to win the Palme d’Or. The Film Institute of Spain approved its submission after an apparently cursory viewing. The Catholic Church, however, was not amused, and due to clerical indignation at Cannes, the head of the Film Institute was fired and the film was banned under Franco for sixteen years.
Distinctly divided into two acts, Viridiana is the story of a saintly, devout young woman unhappily derailed from taking her nun’s vows through a series of bizarre circumstances. In the first act, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) prepares to leave her convent to pay a visit to her widower uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), who has bankrolled her education in the church thus far but hasn’t seen her since she was a child. When she arrives at his sprawling manor, Don Jaime can’t believe his eyes: she looks exactly like his wife, who died in her gown on the night of their wedding. The longer Viridiana stays, the more maddened the lonely man grows by the resemblance (and her chastity), and the more desperately he tries to stall her. He persuades her to try on her aunt’s wedding dress; thus transformed, he has no qualms about slipping her a mickey, but he cannot bring himself to carry out the rape. When she wakes, Jaime explains all of this, and the furious Viridiana leaves promptly, only to discover upon her arrival at the train station that Jaime has hanged himself.
So begins act two, in which she inherits half of his estate and returns to his house, which she now is to share with a long-lost cousin, Jorge (Francisco Rabal), who is Jaime’s illegitimate son. Jorge is interested in Viridiana as well, but she gives him the cold shoulder and attempts to do right by God by collecting a group of homeless people on the street and inviting them to live in the house, promising them food and shelter in exchange for yard work and prayer. Naturally, they are no less lecherous or hedonistic than Jorge and Julio, and her good efforts again go disastrously awry.
The Criterion Collection’s release of Viridiana contains a number of extensively researched supplemental materials (including an essay by Michael Wood, an interview with Buñuel, excerpts from a 1964 television documentary about the filmmaker, and interviews with cast members) that delve into the political climate in Spain in the year of the film’s release, Buñuel’s relationship with Franco, the place of Viridiana in comparison to his Mexican films and his filmography as a whole, and the psychological echoes of his childhood that surface in the story. The context and content of the film is covered so thoroughly by Critierion that it’s difficult to say much of anything original about it; subsequently glaring (especially in the interview) is the ferocity with which critics throughout the years have sought to excavate Viridiana’s symbols. In a comedy of pursuit, all want to pin down the “real” Buñuel, and like Viridiana, he staunchly resists the advances of his suitors. That said, I’ll attempt a few quaint observations of my own.
If the charge of blasphemy has today lost its kick, what makes Viridiana such an enduring shocker? The discomfiting currents of necrophilia and incest are made all the more effective for their overt subtlety—like the greatest of storytellers, Buñuel is a master of hiding things in plain sight. The timeless look of the film encourages us to accept the primarily sexual nature (albeit one-sided) of Viridiana’s relationships with her uncle and cousin, but this isn’t 17th Century Spanish royalty here, this is 1961. And even though the script (which Buñuel admits was altered to adhere to production codes) takes pains to demonstrate that neither man is blood-related to her, the fact that her only two living family members are so vocal about their determination to have sex with her is terrifying in the manner of Polanski’s horror trilogy—namely, it raises paranoid anxieties that home and family are infinitely more dangerous than strangers and the outside world.
Don Jaime’s obsession with Viridiana as a stand-in for his dead wife is quite reminiscent of the Jimmy Stewart/Kim Novak relationship in Vertigo, released three years prior. In both films, an actress is double-cast as a dead woman (hauntingly depicted in a painting) and her live doppelganger. Both women are kept by lonely men who dress them up in the deceased’s clothes, and both men face ruin in their perilous attempts to repossess and commune with the dead. That David Lynch would later recycle this delightfully spooky convention in Twin Peaks and a number of his films is evidence that it still hits a nerve today. Viridiana’s nightmarish quality is continued in the second half of the film through disturbing juxtapositions of the beautiful Viridiana and her grotesquely deformed, disfigured beggars. (As a side note, the banquet/orgy at the end of Viridiana is either a direct or coincidental visual quotation of the wedding feast at the climax of Todd Browning’s 1932 sideshow horror Freaks, which was notoriously revived and appropriated as art cinema at the Venice Film Festival in 1960.)
The most striking (and least discussed) feature of the second act is its broad comedy, which proves quite difficult for those who wish to peg the film as a grave political or social allegory—yet everywhere are pratfalls, low-brow laughs, and pointedly banal “classical” references. Again and again, various characters designate moments as important by playing Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven on the phonograph. The repeated use of the Hallelujah Chorus, as well as well as the much-discussed “Last Supper” shot, in which the beggars pose in the exact configuration of Leonardo da Vinci’s immortal painting, are sheer kitsch; they carry all the weight of the saccharine, mock-sacred wares one would find in a tourist-trap gift shop. Is Buñuel serious, or are we the butt of a joke? Would we be so dead set on obliterating ambiguity and discovering one underlying narrative behind Viridiana if it were created in another medium? The film’s heroine may compromise her chastity at the end of the film, but thankfully, Buñuel’s dedication to personal mystery remains intact.