VIRIDIANA on DVD

From Cineaste, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, September 2006. — J.R.

 

Spoilers ahead: The title heroine (Silvia Pinal) of

Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece, a Spanish novice

about to take her final vows, is ordered by her

mother superior to visit her rich uncle (Fernando

Rey), Don Jaime, who’s been supporting her over

the years but whom she barely knows. A

necrophiliac foot fetishist, he’s preoccupied with

how closely his beautiful niece resembles his

late wife, who died tragically on their wedding night,

and somehow manages to persuade Viridiana

to put on her wedding dress, which he’s

faithfully preserved. With the help of his servant

Ramona (Margarita Lozano), he then drugs her with the

intention of raping her, but deeply mortified by

his behavior, ultimately holds back and hangs

himself instead, using the skipping-rope he

previously gave to Ramona’s little girl.

If this opening strongly evokes the horror of a

Gothic novel — a form of literature Luis Buñuel

was especially drawn to — it takes on

further dimensions just after this suicide, an outcome

already complicated by the fact that Don Jaime,

no simple villain and highly principled, is shown rather

sympathetically. Believing herself to have been

ravaged, Viridiana renounces her vows without

losing any of her faith and piety, and inheriting

Dion Jaime’s estate, decides to take in local beggars

as an act of charity. Their responses to her

generosity are mainly venal, and they immediately start

treating one another with scorn and envy. One of them

takes over the skipping rope as a belt to hold up his

trousers —- an emblematic example of how Buñuel

imbues his universe with a sense of ironic relativity.

Meanwhile, Don Jaime’s illegitimate son Jorge

(Francisco Rabel) arrives as co-heir, hoping to improve the

neglected property and meanwhile sharing the house with

Viridiana and the beggars. He has a mistress in tow, but

she quickly departs after deciding he’s more interested in

his cousin. Then, when Viridiana and Jorge go off on a day

trip, the beggars throw a raucous party and have an

orgiastic feast, at one point briefly duplicating in their

stances and gestures the figures in Leonardo Da Vincu’s

Last Supper. When Viridiana and Jorge return, another

attempt to rape her by one of the beggars is only averted

by Jorge’s offer of a bribe. In a teasingly ambiguous

finale, Viridiana is later seen participating in a threeway

card game with Jorge and Ramona.

***

It’s seldom recognized that Viridiana (1961) is the first feature Buñuel ever

directed in his native Spain — and only the second film he directed there

after his half-hour documentary Las Hurdes almost three decades earlier.

Given all his years of exile in the U.S. and Mexico, this re-establishing of

his roots is an important aspect of what enabled him to reinvent himself

afterwards as an international arthouse icon. “For us,” said Pedro

Portabella, one of the film’s two Spanish executive producers, in a

1999 interview, “Buñuel was the only solid reference point in our

cinema.” And insofar as he was the most Spanish of Spanish filmmakers,

this particular context is worth stressing.

 

It isn’t stressed on Criterion’s otherwise excellent DVD of Viridiana, which doesn’t

mention Portabella — in my view, another important Spanish filmmaker, quite apart

from his producing — either in the extras or in the accompanying booklet. (By contrast,

he was mentioned twice in a brief production story about Viridiana in the Spring 1961

issue of Sight and Sound, which also cited his then-recent work with Carlos Saura and

Marco Ferreri.) But then again our overall sense of Buñuel’s history tends to be rather

spotty, and our sense of Spanish cinema under Franco is almost nonexistent. A

dictatorship which caused time to freeze and a closed society to remain insulated

helped to sustain our ignorance about the country for decades, and Buñuel’s

fractured career has also been subject to certain capitalist forms of censorship. Most

readers of his autobiography in English translation — titled My Last Sigh when

“My Last Gasp” would be more appropriate — are unaware that unacknowledged

excisions in the text have been made on practically every page, apparently on the

assumption that us Yanks wouldn’t care or be interested. (I once went to the trouble

of photocopying the French version so I could start to glean all I’d been missing.)

Spanish cinema under Franco has become such a closed book to us that

notable acts of witness as well as resistance to its repressions have often

been ignored or misread, with Buñuel sometimes perversely used as an

instrument of —- or alibi for —- our own repression. Having recently

made a belated discovery of two remarkable (if currently unfashionable)

features by Juan Antonio Bardem (1922-2002), Death of a Cyclist (1955)

and Calle Mayor (1956) —- both forthright antifascist films that, in the

tradition of Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), take the shape of displaced

allegories out of necessity, exposing the ugliness, cruelty, and brutality

of fascism’s social effects as reflected in male-female relationships —-

I was shocked to find them both dismissed in David Thomson’s A

Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema as simple realist melodramas.

(Calle Mayor —- which evokes I Vitelloni to the same degree that

Cyclist evokes Cronaca di un amore — is even misdescribed as an

adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, apparently on the basis of

its English title, when a more accurate reference point would be Neil

LaBute’s In the Company of Men, which arguably bears the same relation

to capitalism that Calle Mayor bears to fascism). But to get some inkling

of the difficulties Bardem faced while making it, check out Betsy Blair’s

The Memory of All That. Worst of all, Bardem —- whose films have far

more to tell us about Franco Spain than Viridiana does —- is chastised by

Thomson for not being Buñuel; only one anti-Franco vision is permitted.

Clearly some kinds of fascist prohibition are contagious. But it would

be bracing to see Criterion defy them long enough to bring out a Bardem

film or two on DVD. [2011 postscript: Criterion has subsequently released

a DVD of Death of a Cyclist.]

In other words, the limitations in Criterion’s grasp of Viridiana’s Spanish

context are basically inherited ones — the outgrowths of long-term and fairly

widespread lazy habits. And they’re both offset and to some extent

underlined by the DVD’s extras: fine interviews with Viridiana’s Mexican

star Pinal (whose husband became the film’s Mexican producer) and

Cineaste editor Richard Porton, and an equally informative 1964

documentary on Buñuel for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre

temps. (The menu claims that the latter is only “edited excerpts,” though

a comparison of running times suggests that the only likely missing

pieces are a few odd clips due to of clearance problems.) Porton

usefully links what he calls Viridiana’s religious masochism with

Buñuel’s earlier Nazarin and his subsequent Simon of the Desert,

thus opting for a certain thematic continuity that downplays the

distinction between the Mexico of these two films and the Spain

of Viridiana. (To be fair, however, he’s also attentive to Buñuel’s

links to Spanish Communists and the way in which Spain offered

him a way of redefining his Surrealism in more realistic

terms.)

Pinal, of course, offers a Mexican view of Buñuel while the documentary

offers an explicitly French one, with Georges Sadoul among the interviewees.

What seems missing from all three of these approaches is a sense of how the

seemingly “timeless” medievalism of Franco Spain —- encompassing the

same sort of Quixotic nostalgia for feudalism that presumably led Orson Welles

to overlook his political scruples when he chose to live and work there

during the 50s and 60s —- may have provided Buñuel with a more

“universal” canvas for his ironic parables than anything he could find in

Mexico. (Arguably, Robert Bresson profited from a similar medieval ambience

in rural France in Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette a few years later.)

Admittedly, a helpful interview with Buñuel in Criterion’s booklet is headlined

“The Return to Spain,” and Michael Wood’s notes, even if they don’t mention

Las Hurdes, say that Viridiana “did cause a tremendous stir” after winning

the Paume d’or at Cannes and that the film was banned in Spain until 1977.

(In 1961, the heads of at least two Franco government officials rolled —-

apparently the one who approved the film getting made, whom Wood vaguely

mentions, and the one who accepted the award while Buñuel craftily

remained in Paris, whom Wood doesn’t mention. But, citing Buñuel, Wood

adds that Franco himself, when he finally came to see the film, reportedly

found little to object to.) What the notes don’t say is to my mind far more

telling: that the film was denied Spanish nationality by the Franco

government after the Cannes prize and that all its official papers were

confiscated and/or destroyed. “Viridiana simply did not exist,” Portabella

remarked in the 1999 interview. “They did not prohibit it, they simply

erased it….Eight years later, the [censors], at a meeting on January 30,

1969, prohibited the exhibition of a Mexican film entitled Viridiana. It

was classified as: `Blasphemous, antireligious. Cruel and contemptuous

of the poor. Also morbid and brutal. A poisonous film, caustic in its

cinematographic ability to combine images, references, and music.’”

I’m far from being a specialist in these matters, and should confess that some

aspects of my slant on Viridiana derives from recent correspondence with

Portabella —- and that this has derived in turn from my enthusiasm for his

own films, extending all the way from my excited first encounters with his

Vampir-Cuadecuc and Umbracle at the Directors Fortnight in Cannes in

1971 and 1972 to my recent encounter with his 1989 Warsaw Bridge.

(It’s an enthusiasm shared by Jonathan Demme, among others.) Portabella

couldn’t attend Cannes in the 70s because his anti-Franco activities,

including his work on Viridiana, led to his passport being taken away

for that entire decade —- another illustration of how Franco Spain tended

to mask its own history.

I don’t speak Spanish, but a Cuban playwright friend who recently resaw

Viridiana told me he was amazed by the absolute accuracy of all the dialects

and accents given to each of the characters in terms of class, profession,

cultural background, and region — a kind of precision that he found

unmatched in Buñuel’s subsequent Tristana, after his encroaching

deafness became worse, as well as in his Mexican pictures, most of which

were made earlier. Some of this exactness gets conveyed even to those of

us who don’t know the language (although I’m told it helps to understand

the double entendres involving the “threesome” in the final card-playing

scene — Buñuel’s clever and suggestive way of replacing a more obviously

carnal finale of Viridiana forsaking her chastity after the censors objected.)

It’s part of the film’s overall triumph of combining simplicity and

directness with so much moral ambiguity that no character is ever being

set up for simplescorn or admiration. This includes Viridiana, Don Jaime,

Ramona (the most ambiguous figure of all in terms of her shifting alliances),

Jorge, and even the beggars.

While Buñuel, possibly the cinema’s key master of political incorrectness, is certainly

interested in challenging his heroine’s sense of virtue with the beggars’ orgy, he never

stoops to scorn or ridicule. When Robert Altman in M*A*S*H copied Buñuel’s Last Supper

gag, there’s some form of mockery that seemingly got added to the mix, but it’s absent

from the original, where nothing’s ever that simple, even when it feels fairly elemental.

And it’s no less characteristic of Buñuel, an equal-employment humanist, to assign a

humane protest against the mistreatment of a dog not to Viridiana but to the acerbic

Jorge.

Postscript (from June 8, 2013): From Germany, Manfred Polak has emailed me, “The head of the Spanish
Film Institute, who allowed it to be made (and helped to avoid the censors, who often were Catholic priests then), and who also accepted the prize in Cannes, was José María Muñoz Fontán. He and the other members of the Cannes delegation were sacked, when they were still on their way home, after the Vatican newspaper
L’Osservatore Romano had stirred up the scandal.”

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