Luis Buñuel's late career has been described as one of the great artistic flowerings in cinema. Starting in (roughly) 1961, the conventional wisdom suggests, Buñuel began making masterpieces as a matter of course. I'm not entirely sympathetic with this point of view. By the time he made Viridiana (1961), he had already made Los Olvidados and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz. It is, perhaps, more correct to say that after 1961, the world noticed that Bunuel was making masterpieces whenever he was given his head. The revival of his reputation occurred, perhaps, because he was no longer working in the ignored cinematic backwater of Mexico. The film cognoscenti can be Eurocentric, sometimes, especially the French. Even two years before Viridiana, French critics were wondering what had happened to Buñuel after the promising start to his career. And then Viridiana happened and Buñuel's fortunes changed. Even if one accepts that Buñuel's late flowering is an illusion or a trick of one's point of view, Viridiana remains a film upon which his career seems to turn.
The liner notes on the Criterion edition to Viridiana describe a cartoon in which Buñuel steps off the airplane and hands General Franco a present. To the astonishment of both Franco and a protester in the background, it explodes in Franco's face. This is more or less the story of Viridiana. No good deed goes unpunished. It seems incredible that the fascist, Franco, didn't know what he was getting in Buñuel. His early films were notorious. Even as late as 1960, Don Luis was making films to shock the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. His 1960 film, The Young One, was a film to make audiences of the day blush. So Franco invited a bomb-thrower into the palace and was shocked that that bomb-thrower threw a bomb. He might as well have asked a leopard to change his spots.
Buñuel returned to Spain at the urging of Carlos Saura's new production company, Uninci, as a means of kickstarting Spain's long-supressed national cinema. Buñuel, for his part, had been existing on marginal productions in Mexico. His films there rarely made money unless they were pre-selected genre pictures, and he continued working on the good will of his admirers. In Viridiana, Buñuel would have resources denied him in Mexico, so making the film--Franco or no--could only be a good thing for him. He made the most of his opportunity.
Viridiana tells the story of a young woman who is about to take her vows to become a nun. Her mother superior orders her to visit her uncle before taking the vows. Obediently, she complies. Her uncle is fixated on Viridiana, who resembles his dead wife. He convinces Viridiana to dress in his wife's wedding gown and proposes to her. When she refuses, he drugs her with the intent of raping her. But he can't go through with it. He tells Viridiana that he did rape her as a means of preventing her from taking her vows, but to no avail. When it becomes clear that she will always despise him, he hangs himself with a jump rope. This thwarts Viridiana, who stays on at her uncle's estate, no longer interested in taking her vows. She has too much guilt to expiate in a convent. She chooses to expiate her guilt by providing charity to a group of beggars, who she puts into the abandoned dormitories for the workers on her uncle's now-fallow farm. Meanwhile, her uncle's son arrives to take up residence with his girlfriend. Viridiana's presence soon breaks them up. Jorge, like his father, lusts after Viridiana, but to no avail. Jorge soothes his wounded pride by taking up with the housewoman, Ramona. When Jorge and Viridiana leave the house on business for a short while, the beggars invade the house and wreck the place. Finding them en flagrante when they return, Jorge is taken captive and the other beggars decide to rape Viridiana. Jorge manages to avert this by bribing one beggar to kill the would-be rapist. The film ends with Viridiana beholden to Jorge, and with Jorge inviting Viridiana to "play cards" with Ramona and himself.
One of the things you see in Viridiana is a full flowering of Buñuel cinematic anima. Perhaps because he wasn't answering to his producers for a change, this is a film that's full of the markers that distinctively stamp the film as Buñuel's. There's the foot fetish and crossdressing (Don Jaime is seen trying on his wife's slippers and is interrupted before he can lace himself into her corset). There's the fascination with insects. There's the dialogue between Buñuel's lack of faith and the things the church taught him as he came of age. Buñuel is a classic ex-Catholic, one who excoriates the church while still being deeply influenced by it's teachings. He responds to his upbringing by revering the Church's images while simultaneously desecrating them (in the sense of making them "not-sacred"): the crucifix that hides a switchblade, the beggars' parody of "The Last Supper," Viridiana's crown of thorns consigned to the fire. The Catholic Church, predictably, was horrified by the film. The Church colluded with Franco to make sure the film was suppressed, an action made very difficult by the Cannes Film Festival, which awarded it the Palm d'Or. It would be over a decade before the film actually played in Spain. In the interim, it became an underground film, one seen in private on bootleg prints. Fortunately, the film was adopted by Mexico after Franco and The Church orphaned it.
One of Viridiana's most famous images is a dog being dragged along by a mule cart. Slow down for even a second, and the dog will be choked. Jorge buys the dog, ignorant of another dog in the exact same predicament passing behind him. In the context of the movie, the message seems to be that charity is a fool's errand. This is certainly the case with Viridiana's beggars. As in most Buñuel's best films (of which this is one), this critique of piety and religious generosity is a harsh rebuke to the bourgeois notions they inform. This is laced with a withering irony. The most reprehensible character in the film is arguably Don Jaime, Viridiana's uncle, who Buñuel shows us engaging in acts of charity throughout his portion of the film: he supports Viridiana at the convent, he takes her in when she visits, his generosity has supported Ramona and her daughter for years. He's even shown fishing a honeybee out of some water. This character trait appears to have been passed to Jorge, who, as I've noted, takes pity on the dog. The movie doesn't condemn this variety of charity, since it's all entirely self-interested. It's Viridiana's charity, performed as penance to a vindictive god that Buñuel doesn't believe exists, that sticks in his craw, and he punishes her for it.
Buñuel is not often thought of as a visual innovator, a fact that Buñuel seems to acknowledge in the interviews and such provided with the Criterion dvd. "I have never liked refabricated cinematographic beauty," he once said, "which very often makes one forget what the film wants to tell, and which personally, does not move me." The surrealism of Bunuel's ideas are often accompanied by an unfussy naturalism. Los Olvidados could be mistaken for a neo-realist film if taken at face value, for example. This notion of utilitarianism is belied by the beauty of Viridiana, a film that shows that even if he doesn't care about the aesthetics of his shots, he does care about how they communicate the space and the blocking of his scenes, something at which Bunuel was a master. Take this shot, for instance:
It uses space to communicate the distance between Viridiana and Don Jaime. The arrangement of elements in receding planes of film space is accidentally beautiful. Or maybe not so accidentally. Bunuel is not always a director whose word should be taken without a grain of salt. He was capricious.
In another version of film history, Silvia Pinal and Luis Bunuel would be mentioned in the same breath, like Von Sternberg and Dietrich or Scorsese and De Niro. She ultimately made three films with Bunuel, and she's partially responsible for Viridiana existing at all. Her husband produced the film at her urging. She had been pushing to work with Bunuel for years. She was Bunuel's first choice for the lead in Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour, and Tristana, parts that eventually went to Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve respectively for their supposed box office clout. Being pushed out of Diary of a Chambermaid, produced by her husband, broke up her marriage. Pinal in Viridiana has something of the look of Catherine Deneuve, though without the glacial distance and inhuman beauty. In the dark Gothic set of Don Jaime's mansion, dressed in the wedding gown, she glows incandescent. As with Deneuve in Belle de Jour and Tristana, Bunuel sets out to defile the image of holy femininity Pinal represents. Over the full course of their collaboration, Bunuel presents Pinal as both madonna and whore, spiritual ideal, foolish bourgeoisie, and, ultimately, as the devil in Simon of the Desert. Perhaps ironically, Pinal named her daughter Viridiana. She knew the eventual fate of the film. It's one for the ages and she knew it and consequently she gives everything to it.
As I've said, Bunuel's late period begins with Viridiana, and even though I may discount the idea that Bunuel's films of the 1960s and 70s are necessarily more important than his Mexican films or his early surrealist films, they are the films upon which his reputation and fame rests. And, if I'm honest, I'll admit that Viridiana is my favorite of his films. It's his funniest deconstruction of Catholicism. The ex-Catholic in me revels in its blasphemy. It's also his easiest to watch. Mind you, Bunuel was never one of those arthouse directors whose films require a great deal of patience to unlock. Bunuel's unfussy style puts everything in front of an audience while it unreels. He never shirked at providing a narrative, and Viridiana's narrative hook pulls the viewer along with a persistent tug. Rewatching it, I was struck by how much fun it is to follow. Alfred Hitchcock once cited Bunuel as his favorite director. Perhaps he sensed a kinship with a filmmaker who knew how to please an audience without sacrificing his own themes and interests or worldview.
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