Viridiana (Criterion Collection)
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Banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican, Luis Buñuels irreverent vision of life as a beggars banquet is regarded by many as his masterpiece. In it, the young novice Viridiana does her utmost to maintain her Catholic principles, but her lecherous uncle and a motley assemblage of paupers force her to confront the limits of her idealism. Winner of the Palme dOr at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, this anticlerical free-for-all is as shocking today as ever.
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Viridiana covers the gamut, and more. Silvia Pinal and Fernando Rey are excellent.
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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.
The controversial satire was banned by the Spanish government for obscenity and blasphemy after it had received the Golden Palm at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Viridiana of the title is a young nun (Mexican actress Silvia Penal) who is assigned by her mother superior to visit her widowed uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) on his farm just before taking her final vows. Viridiana reluctantly agrees to meet with her uncle whom she never knew but who has supported her financially all these years. Don Jaime is obsessed by her cool virginal blond beauty and he sees her as reincarnation of his bride who died thirty years ago on their wedding night. Bunuel gives some of his own sexual fantasies, fetishes, and dreams that he freely admits to Don Jaime thus making him more human. Viridiana winds up as a farm owner along with her uncle's illegitimate son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal, humble and spiritual Nazarin of "Nazarin" here plays absolutely different man). Viridiana, following the great traditions of mad Spaniards, originated by Cervantes and continued by Nazarin, takes seriously great ideas and tries to live accordingly when she attempts to make the farm a heaven for local homeless beggars. Viridiana is a woman of virtue but all her good intentions lead nowhere. I am not surprised that the film was banned and all copies were ordered to be destroyed (Silvia Penal in her interview recalls the dramatic story of two copies of the film that were saved and buried, so they could wait for the better times), I am surprised how Bunuel was able to make this super dark dramedy about the inability of the Catholic Church to deal with the realities of the world at all in his native Spain when Franco was still in power.
Technically, Viridiana is a perfect film, odd and enigmatic behind the seeming simplicity. It's power lays not in the set decorations, stunning locations or the colorful costumes but in a way people interact. When asked what were his ideas behind his films, Bunuel answered, "I have no ideas, it is all instinct".
It took 17 years to bring "Viridiana" home to Spain where it was first shown at the theaters in 1977. It took another 29 years to transfer it to Criterion DVD. Now it is available with several interesting bonus features that include interview with Silvia Penal from 2006, an interview with Richard Norton, the Cineaste editor, and the best one, the parts of the film about Bunuel that was made back in 60th and the man in the documentary is as enigmatic, odd, charming, brilliant, and sinister as his films are.
Just think in the historic moment the film was made. Buñuel was essentially an anti establishment artist , and his political posture is well known and one of his primary concerns consisted in proving that we are not in the best of the possible worlds and this statement scopes the shade of the Totalitarian Regimes in search a better world for the mankind : the search of the total welfare implies necessarily the demolition of the previous Status Quo. And if you watch with absolute coldness and free or passionless, you will feel this invisible slap in the face of the most devoted believers the human happiness can be stated. The literal mess when the alcohol make his late effects in the middle of this humble crowd , slowly and progressively goes showing the ugliness of the feelings behind the mask of good manners, creating a real atmosphere of claustrophobia and horror in the worst sense of the word. The sinister parody to the last Supper was immediately rejected by many religious sectors: Once more the forest avoided to watch the real intentions of Buñuel.
This extraordinary, original, powerful and unforgettable film is one the supreme master jewels of the Cinema in any age.
The performance of one of the most beautiful and talented actress in that age: Silvia Pinal as the prodigal nun who really believes in the fact the human still can be redeemable is simply of first rate. And the script deserves simply an everlasting applause. After you watch this merciless picture you will reformulate your inner vision about certain issues you considered out of discussion.
But "Viridiana", filmed in Spain in 1961 by acclaimed writer/director Luis Buñuel takes a much bolder stand. It attacks Christianity on the grounds that acts of charity and compassion are futile and without worth.
The film tells the story of a young novice (the Silvia Pinal ably plays the title character) who is instructed by her Mother Superior to visit her uncle before she takes her vows. She has up until then had little contact with the uncle who financially supported her.
She obeys and visits her uncle (played by Fernando Rey) at his vast but decaying estate, and finds him to be a man of rather depraved tastes. He tells Viridiana that she reminds him of his late wife and asks the much younger woman to marry him. When she refuses him, he drugs her coffee and takes advantage of her (to an unclear degree.) After this incident, the uncle kills himself because of his guilt.
Viridiana learns she has inherited her uncle's estate, but it is to be shared with her uncle's illegitimate son, Jorge. Like his father, Jorge, is a man who pursues pleasure above all else.
Viridiana decides to open the estate to the poor in the village, inviting the blind, the crippled and the destitute. But they take advantage of her hospitality, staging a party in the house that becomes not just an orgy, but a mockery of the Last Supper.
In one of the film's famed sequences, Jorge is seen trying to perform an act of kindness. He sees a man dragging a dog chained to his wagon. Jorge buys the dog from the man so it will no longer be abused. But they we see another man, another wagon and another dog even more greatly abused. The implication is any act of charity can only change a minute faction of the evil in the world.
The film implies that those who are charitable will be betrayed and abused and no lasting good will come of any of it. Better to "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we will die".
But these charges come as no surprise to anyone who knows Scripture. Jesus acknowledged the futility of ending all need when He said, "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7.) His entire life is an example of generosity responded to with ingratitude, betrayal and violence.
But He came to save His enemies (Romans 5: 7 - 8). He came in the flesh that first Christmas, knowing that He had come to die. But His viewpoint is bigger than ours. He knew that after the cross would come the resurrection. We can know that acts of compassion are not futile because every gift we give in His name, He receives (Matthew 25:4.)
Though I disagree profoundly with the philosophy of the film, the execution is flawless. It is witty, well written, acted and directed. It will jar you into thought. Perhaps Bunuel's best film ("The Exterminating Angel" is close.)
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