'Viridiana' begins like a mad Spanish variant on Roger Corman's Poe adaptations. Don Jaime is the Vincent Price-like mad widower (his wife died of heart-attack on their wedding night), haunting his crumbling manor, neglecting his decaying lands, mournfully playing an old piano or listening to Bach and Handel records. At night, by a coffin in which is draped his bride's wedding dress, he wears her shoes and corset. In his past is a shameful story of youthful transgression, and an abandoned, illegitimate son. He invites his niece, Viridana, a dead ringer for his wife, to stay with him for the few days before she takes holy orders. In a fantastic ritual, he asks her to wear the wedding dress and proposes marriage; when she refuses, he drugs her, with the aid of his devoted servant - to whose daughter he gives the skipping rope that takes on an importance from the merely symbolic into the fetishistic and violent - and takes the niece to the bedroom for a necrophiliac rape. Prior to this, he had caught her in one of her sleepwalking trances, throwing her knitting into the fire, and pouring ashes on her uncle's bed. Pure Poe.
Poe was one of the acknowledged precursors of the Surrealists, and in 'Viridiana', Bunuel makes use of two Gothic tropes - the Gothic house/castle/manor is often a figure for the disintegrating mind, but also a metaphor for the nation: Don Jaime's madness, his gentility masking a dangerous egotism, his passion perversely and inwardly directed so that it feeds on itself, his neglect of the land, are all tenets of Franco's Spain, a pinched, gnarled, sterile world in this film.
The Gothic was also the genre in which society could dramatise those anxieties - death, sexual deviance, social disruption - not talked aobut in the middle class public sphere. Gothic novels often featured representative, hyper-virtuous heroines who had to negotiate evils such a society would cast out. Such a reading applies to 'Viridiana' also, with the title character, who has spent most of her life closed off from the world, hidden from its temptations, confronted with unpalatable distortions of desire, family, the body, community, class etc.
In 'Viridiana', however, Bunuel conflates these two movements - the Gothic as social allegory, and as site of released repressions. The film's infamous second half - in which Viridiana attempts to atone for a suicide by caring for beggars and outcasts, and her uncle's son's attempts to modernise the home - savagely mixes them up. The beggars, embodying a whole antheap of qualities, desires, realities the Spanish ruling class and bourgeoisie everywhere suppress, take over the mansion, mishandle its possessions, parody its civilising artefacts (food, music, painting, sculpture), a destructive Bacchic frenzy contemptuous of viewers - we may cheer when the meek inherit the earth, but a greater pack of brutal thugs, informing sneaks, loathesome lepers or frothing rapists you'll never see; while Don Jaime, for all his monstrosity, has a quiet grace absent from the other characters. His servants assume their own thuggish hierarchy when faced with the amoral vagrants, asserting their perceived superiority. The celestial Viridiana's initiation into the 'earthy' is not something anyone, whatever their politics, can buy.
It is wholly characteristic that Bunuel should couch this moral dynamite in one of his most visually beautiful films - the recurring Bunuel motifs (feet, ropes etc.; religious paraphernalia as bondage gear); the dense compositions, at once framing characters in their environment and mocking them; and the startling zooms out, from intimate close-ups on parts of the body to the shocking realisation that someone is always watching.