Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Silvia Pinal, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey, Margarita Lozano
Director:  Luis Bunuel
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  May 23, 2006

“Is there some serious impediment that prevents you from taking your vows?”

“I’ve done nothing wrong…I only know I’ve changed.”

Film ***1/2

With Viridiana, one of cinema’s truest artists Luis Bunuel marked his return to his native Spain.  His picture earned worldwide critical accolades and the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.  It was also banned in his homeland and condemned by the Vatican.  In other words, it was par for the course for him…highly symbolic and indicative of his entire career.

It didn’t have the surreal edge that he was most known for, but what it lacked in strangeness it made up for in pure bleakness.  This is one of the most pessimistic films I’ve ever seen.  Bunuel’s take on the Church and faith in general as an exercise in futility is a little shocking, and thoroughly depressing.

He tells the tale of Viridiana (Pinal), a young woman living in a convent getting ready to accept her vows.  At the bequest of her Mother Superior, she agrees to spend a few days with an older uncle Don Jaime (Rey), who was her benefactor but whom she never really knew.  In their brief time together, the lonely Don Jaime makes a clumsy pass at her, and ends up drugging her and fondling her while unconscious.

The next day, to prevent her from leaving, he tells her he had his way with her, before recanting the lie in sorrow.  Does she know herself what the truth is?  Maybe not…but in her shame and horror, she does not return to the convent.

When Don Jaime hangs himself, he leaves his house and lands to a bastard stepson Jorge (Rabal), and his farmhouse to Viridiana.  Seemingly determined to walk a path back to the Church, she uses the modest house as a place of charity.  The poor, lame, and blind all gather there for food and shelter and prayers, while the bemused Jorge, who has an eye on her himself, sets about remodeling his new home and grounds.

But Viridiana’s charity is far from well founded…when all are away at a meeting, her motley crew of beggars and infirm decide to make the big house their own, throwing a lavish party, destroying many things, and even ending up in an all out orgy while Handel’s Messiah booms on an old phonograph.  When Viridiana returns early, two of those she helped attempt to rape her, including a man with a skin disease who was shunned by everybody except the kind Viridiana.

In Bunuel’s eyes, no good deed goes unpunished.  The shattered Viridiana, at the film’s end, seems to have abandoned her faith for good, and calmly and sadly accept her place, probably as just another of Jorge’s constant stream of affairs.  Talk about getting the wind knocked out of you…not just for her, but for the viewing audience as well.

Like Ingmar Bergman, Bunuel had a kind of adversarial fascination with the Church, but unlike Bergman’s approach, which was mostly philosophical and agnostic, Bunuel’s take could only be described as contempt.  It wasn’t prevalent in all of his films, but from the priests being drug behind a piano in Un Chein Andalou to the thoughtless knight who munches on consecrated hosts right out of the tabernacle in The Phantom of Liberty, Bunuel seemed to view religion, and Catholicism in particular, as ineffectual, corrupt and hypocritical.  Belief was something to be either mocked or scorned, and in the case of the sweet, naïve Viridiana, something to be punished as well.

The film is brilliant in a disturbing way…one can’t separate the story as a piece of fiction from the man who created it as an open condemnation on what he abhorred.  Seeing Viridiana’s body being desecrated is bad enough, but seeing her spirit die is positively unsettling.  What we are witnessing in Viridiana is a slow, inevitable march to a resolution of complete nothingness.

Needless to say, it’s not a point of view I endorse.  But as a naked testament from a man who once proclaimed “thank God I’m an atheist”, it’s a dark, unflinching fantasy coming from a mind who either could not or would not grasp the concept of a divine moral structure.  It’s rare to see such feelings laid so bare for all to see.

As a Luis Bunuel fan, I find myself leaning more towards his more surreal offerings like Exterminating Angel, That Obscure Object of Desire or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie rather than his more straightforward dramas like Diary of a Chambermaid or Viridiana.  But regardless of how he chose to approach his art, Bunuel’s entire filmography is rich, complex, rewarding and revealing.  I’m glad not all of his films were like Viridiana…at least just as glad as I am that he made at least ONE like it.

Video ***1/2

The black and white anamorphic transfer from Criterion is quite lovely, keeping all of Bunuel’s visual style intact.  The contrast and detail levels are strong, with only a touch of noticeable grain here and there during the darkest images.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is a decent mix for an older film, with Spanish dialogue and music beds working well together.

Features **1/2

No commentary on this one, but there is a modern interview with Silvia Pinal and one with author Richard Porton.  There is also a trailer and excerpts from the French program Cineastes de notre temps on Bunuel.

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