Director: Luis Buñuel
Production: Uninci S.A. and Films 59 (Spain) and Gustavo Alatriste (Mexico); black and white, 35mm; running time: 90 minutes. Released 17 May 1961, Cannes Film Festival. Filmed in Spain, near Madrid and Toledo. Cannes Film Festival, Best Film, 1961.
Producer: R. Muñoz Suay; screenplay: Luis Buñuel and Julio Alejandro, from a story by Buñuel; photography: José F. Aguayo; editor: Pedro del Rey; art director: Francisco Canet; music: Handel and Mozart; arranger: Gustavo Pittaluga.
Cast: Silvia Pinal (Viridiana); Francisco Rabal (Jorge); Fernando Rey (Don Jaime); Margarita Lozano (Ramona); Victoria Zinny (Lucia); Teresa Rabal (Rita).
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* * *
Viridiana is the most atypical of Luis Buñuel's films. If he had set out deliberately to antagonize and shock a whole school of faith, he certainly did it in this film, which, while it was his undoubted masterpiece, concealed a bomb that made it impossible for him ever to return to his native land, Spain.
Not that he wanted to. Viridiana was a film he had to make in order to free himself, to let the world know that he was not in idle jest when he broke away from his Roman Catholic faith. The score he had to settle with the Church must have been building for a long, long time. It took over 60 years for him to declare himself utterly free. He was always regarded as the great iconoclast of his time; no director was as unpredictable; but few would have guessed how deep was his hatred for Roman Catholicism.
When the Spanish Civil War was concluded and Spain had settled down to a forgiving and let-it-be-forgotten peace, he, as Spain's greatest film director, was invited by Franco's minister of culture to return to his native country and make whatever film he chose with the blessing of Franco. Nobody, even his co-workers, knew that he was planning so defiantly an anti-Catholic film as Viridiana. He always worked rapidly once he had begun and, in no time, he had finished shooting his picture and was safely across the Pyrenees, with the whole of his film smuggled out ahead of him. Franco raged, destroying the out-take films deliberately and tantalizingly left behind; he dismissed his minister of culture, and cursed the day he had ever trusted a faithless Spaniard who knew too much for Franco's good. It was not long before Spain acknowledged that it had been betrayed by its priesthood during the Civil War, and put its trust in its young, who had not seen their country go to the devil in the name of God and Franco.
Viridiana is basically the story of innocence betrayed and lost. The heroine, Viridiana, has completed her novitiate and is about to enter the Church forever, when her Mother Superior persuades her to pay a farewell visit to Don Jaime, her uncle, who had paid for her education and entry into the service of God. Although Viridiana consents to the visit, she has always loathed her uncle because he has never shown her the slightest affection. He is very rich, however, and she is persuaded that she must see him one last time before she takes her farewell of the world and its ways.
Don Jaime, to her surprise, is affectionate and charming, and lets her know that she is the very image of his dead wife, for whom he still maintains a kind of necrophiliac passion. He has a handsome illegitimate son named Jorge, who is attracted to the young and innocent Viridiana, but is willing to bide his time. Besides, he has brought a mistress of his own to his uncle's estate.
Don Jaime is able to drug Viridiana's wine, and later steals into her bedroom to look upon her as she lies happily unconscious. She is so devoted to Jesus that she wears a crown of thorns and a huge wooden crucifix. She is clothed only in a simple shift. Don Jaime, in a trance, utters his wife's name, removes the crown and crucifix that the girl wears, and brutally rapes her while she lies senseless before him. Consumed by guilt, he then hangs himself.
Viridiana, recovering consciousness, realizes sadly that she is not without guilt herself, for she has blinded herself to the realities of the world; she formally rejects the vows she had made, and returns to the estate she has inherited with Jorge, hoping to make her peace with God. Still imbued with a crippled kind of faith, she takes it upon herself to rescue a band of castaway and diseased gypsy beggars, inviting them to become workers on the land she inherited with Jorge.
They work the land lazily, and at night they indulge themselves in one of the most defiant orgies ever filmed. It is sacrilegious if one is a Christian, which Buñuel was pleased to say he was not. The drunken, diseased beggars stage a supper scene that is a deliberate parody of the grouping in Da Vinci's painting of "The Last Supper." They dance grotesquely, entertaining themselves lewdly to the thunder of the "Hallelujah Chorus."
The picture Buñuel made of his country's plight is replete with symbolism of what Spain had become, a warning of what it might be in a world gone mad. The only moral salvation the film hints at is a hope that in a reformed Viridiana and a wiser, less destructive Jorge there may be the seed for a new generation of Spain, cut clean away from the ancient hypocrisies bred in the Church. His heroine comes of age, and realizing the falseness of her onetime faith, pledges herself to a new life that may embrace complete freedom.
Viridiana may be a compelling shocker, but it is also a beautifully made picture with wonderful visuals, and the shock it gives may be virtually necessary to its meaning. Buñuel himself expressed it well when he said, "The sense of film is this: that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds." He was never afraid to show people how vicious and contemptible they are. When it is all over, Viridiana sits playing cards, listening to rock-and-roll music with her uncle's aggressive illegitimate son. But after the cardplaying and the record has come to an end, what then?