VIRIDIANA on DVD

From Cineaste, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, September 2006. Viridiana is showing today in London as part of the massive Pere Portabella retrospective at the Close-up Film Centre. — 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 Vinci’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 Pere

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 simple scorn 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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