Viridiana (1961) is a tale about a young nun who's so into her faith that she tries to do what she feels is morally and ethically right. Sadly, the world has changed and no matter how hard she tries to help those around her, it all winds up biting her in the end.
Viridiana is a rare masterpiece that reflects the attitudes of the society that people (such as that "lovable" despot Franco) had created and the archaic teachings of the Catholic Church. The poor nun is one of the last of the true believers who adhere's to the dogma of the Church even when most of their leaders have abandoned it. Even the poor masses (whom she relies on) fail her.
Can she remain true to her faith when everyone else around her ignores it?
This film is in Spanish with English subtitles.
Silvia Pinal ... Viridiana
Francisco Rabal ... Jorge
Fernando Rey ... Don Jaime
José Calvo ... Beggar (as Jose Calvo)
Margarita Lozano ... Ramona
José Manuel Martín ... Beggar
Victoria Zinny ... Lucia
Luis Heredia ... Beggar
Joaquín Roa ... Beggar
Lola Gaos ... Beggar
María Isbert ... Beggar (as Maruja Isbert)
Teresa Rabal ... Rita (as Teresita Rabal)
This film portrays the abysmal differences between people with different educations and senses of morality. At the same time, it is a commentary on the hopelessness of a society where no one understands why the status quo should be tampered with. No summary could really do this film justice since the visual impressions and symbols are just as important as the express message portrayed by the events.
But here goes: A novice is forced by circumstances to leave her convent and visit her uncle, falling under the influence of her world wise cousin. She tries to maintain her ideals by doing good works but is taken advantage of and despised by the very people she means to help.
Viridiana was the first film Buñuel filmed from exile and (so the story goes) the church was in an uproar and adamant that it be censored. Perhaps this is because none of the characters seem to give a fig about the teachings of the church except for the novice. Perhaps it is because one of the messages that seems clear is that the church is ineffectual in its efforts to improve the human condition. However, the depth of the story speaks more to the social condition in general -similar in all of Europe at the time- and the church was merely a part of that.
It is possible that a superficial viewing might interpret the characters to represent specific political factions from the era when the film was made but I believe that is an error. Even Franco, if we are to believe what we are told today, didn't personally see anything wrong with the film when he saw it and his order that all copies be destroyed was given in the interest of appeasing the church. People who appreciate quality film will be grateful that at least one copy survived the mass destruction by being sent to France.
Few film directors have worked with the sheer power and subversiveness that Spanish-born Luis Buñuel have. "Viridiana" is one of the best examples of the exiled Spaniard's feelings towards religious faith and its virtues- or his strong denial of religion as a virtue.
Buñuel started out as a Surrealist, and although he left the Surrealist Circle of Paris lead by André Breton, he always kept elements of Surrealism in his work, to the bitter end. So too in "Viridiana", where dreams play a small, but important part of the narrative, dreams being the Surrealists' main theme as a way of discovering repressed sexuality and aggression. Viridiana is a young nun who is, on the grounds of showing human compassion, talked into visiting her uncle Don Jaime, who is ill. Don Jaime, played by Buñuel regular Fernando Rey, is caring, but perverse. He falls in love with his niece, and does everything with the help of his maid, to keep Viridiana from parting to the convent, including lying to her and seducing her while she is trainquilized.
I am not going to give away all the events of the film, but the corruption of humanity and Christianity are soon evident, as Viridiana tries to help poor beggars and give them a worthy life. Her attempts at Christian charity are only met with self-pity and egocentricity, as the beggars go on a rampage reminiscient of the last supper of Jesus christ and his disciples. Violence, murder, gluttony and rape are all included to make a clear picture of the way the beggars have lost their human virtues to the hardship of poverty. We see the events through Viridiana's eyes, and everything she goes through suggests a broken belief in the goodness of both human beings and the faith she kept for so long.
A masterpiece in revolutionary cinema, this film won the Palm d' Or at Cannes in 1961, and the Spanish Board of Film were all fired afterwards, as Franco's regime could not quite swallow that "Viridiana" was the official Spanish contribution to the Festival.
Forty years on and `Viridiana' is one of the very few, almost unique, examples of classical Spanish cinema to have survived the turmoil of the latter half of the last century. It remains as a little light in the midst of the darkness of the Franco Régime, which promptly banned it, or as an insouciance to the Vatican, which promptly excomulgated everyone concerned with it.
Buñuel's genius is apparent in every frame: the eye for detail, nonetheless permitting that impromptu evanesqueness which lends exquisiteness to these memorable scenes, above which shines the `Last Supper'. And it is precisely this scene which gives one the impression that the real stars in the making of this film were the motley beggars taken in from the streets. Silvia Pinal and Francisco `Paco' Rabal are not outstanding in this piece; even the incomparable Fernando Rey is overshadowed by the band of social outcasts. The sheer poeticness so brilliantly captured by the camera roaming among the vagabonds is cinematographic exquisiteness carried to its extreme: every grimace, every wrinkled nose, the debauchery, is what makes the principal actors be no such thing, but secondary actors overwhelmed by the nuances and gestures of these `untouchables". Brilliant filming, indeed – whether intentional or not or whether this be only my personal interpretation after seeing this film three times in the last twenty five years, is of course open to debate.
Suffice just to mention Lola Gaos: (Tristana (1970) – also by Buñuel - is one of her other films worthy of mention, surprisingly accepted by the censor's blue pen). In the 70s her voice began to break up, such that in the end she lived out her last years in poverty, forgotten by the times and cinema makers, until hauled out of hiding for a last TV appearance, sardonic way of giving her a few pennies to eke out to the end of her existence, but by then (1989) her voice was so fragmented it was near impossible to understand her. Her throat-cancer was never treated adequately.
Luis Buñuel (`Thank God I am an atheist') has gone; Fernando Rey has gone; Paco Rabal died yesterday in an aeroplane flying over the English Channel, returning from the Montreal Film Festival where he received his last award…….
They leave `Viridiana' as testament to those historical and difficult times, an isolated exposé amid what was, for Spain, a cinematographical desert.
Viridiana may be one of the least surreal films in Luis Bunuel's career, more than likely, but it has perhaps the most acidic satire in any of his 1960s work. It's a film that, actually, might be a good portal into the director's work for those who haven't seen much or any of his work (though one could always vouch for Discreet Charm or Un Chien Andalou first). It's actually got a very straightforward narrative without too many punches pulled in delving into the characters' psyches. We're given the compassionate, caring, but also very mixed-up Viridiana, played by Silvia Pinal, beautiful and kind, but in her ultra-Catholic character is someone who cannot be tempted in the least. She is, one would suppose, the most conventional character, and we're just supposed to take for granted, in Bunuelian style, that she's just like this way. No bother- this is a masterpiece of ensemble anyway, and an ensemble practically all non-professionals (it almost seems like Bunuel picked some of them from the same village that provided Las Hurdes). It's bitter and depressing in its view of humanity, but it's expertly crafted all the way, and it builds towards a tremendous climax.
For a while it seems like something very peculiar is going on with Viridiana and her uncle (Fernando Rey, in only a supporting role but one of his very best performances), when he invites her to stay at his home but won't let here leave due to his infatuation with her. Indeed, we see- in one of the funniest bits early on- that he even tries her shoes on, and attempts to have his way with her when drugged. But Bunuel's film, for the most part, isn't necessarily as hilarious in its satire as in his other classics. Actually, it's really more of a dramatic effort here, which is all the more fascinating to me: Bunuel can pull off making what seems, at least for 2/3 of the film, to be a sincere look at how a woman makes an attempt to overcome a tragedy in her family (Rey's character's end) by taking in vagrants and homeless folk and cripples, while her 'cousin' takes over the bourgeois duties. On this level, Bunuel, and his screenwriters, have a fantastic control over the mood of scenes, and then spiking with little visual details things that just strike his fancy (i.e. in the attic with the cat and the rat, or the teats on the cow, or the crown of thorns).
...BUT, then there's a day when Viridiana has to go into town, and those she took in take over the joint, so to speak, and it makes the nighttime party scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest look tame by comparison. This is where finally, as if in a rush of clarity, Bunuel unleashes the fury of his satire, as one sees what the kindness and support that Viridiana tried to do- if not out of the genuine goodness of her heart then as just a way to clear her religiously guilty mind-set over Rey's Uncle- completely, reprehensibly backfires. At this point one sees Bunuel at his naughtiest, most crude, and still as is a given with him, playful (one of the greatest moments in the filmmaker's career comes when he deliberately sets up the Last Supper for the bums). Then, finally, one sees a very cruel and almost dehumanizing catharsis, but maybe it's not really at the same time. There is a powerful message working through much of the picture, where religion, class, attitudes are all tested in the sense of restrictions: how far is too far with temptation and free will? For Bunuel, it can be anything, which is why the outcome of Viridiana taking in the homeless and destitute becomes her psychological downfall (see her hair let down towards the end, and her blank, drained face at the card table).
And yet, all through the symbolism that seems ambiguous (girl jumping rope) and very direct (burning of crown of thorns), and with the scathing mix of sordid drama and black-as-a-bull comedy, Bunuel never loses sight of his vision, and Viridiana is a constantly watchable effort with his gracious, intuitive camera, and his sharp ear for the truth in every character's dialog. Frustrating at times, you bet, and its sensibilities on human nature, and the decisions made, make one re-think what it is to be either rich, poor, or in the middle. But it's also one of the director's best films, and a very deserved Golden Palm winner.