Viridiana (1961) is the first of three films Luis Buñuel made with the lovely Sylvia Pinal (the other two are The Exterminating Angel and Simon of the Desert, which we’ll get to eventually). Following two decades of political exile, Buñuel made his return to his native Spain and produced this Palme d’Or winner. It’s not surprising that the Cannes jury that awarded this film their top honor weren’t looking at it with the same eyes as the leader of Spain, which at this time was still, after over a quarter of a century, Francisco Franco (who would continue to preside another fifteen years). Well, Buñuel gave Franco the finger with this film, and Franco knew it.
Pinal plays the innocent Viridiana who, when the movie begins, is just a few days away from taking her vows as a nun. Apparently for some time Viridiana has been supported by her reclusive, lonely uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), and he’d like her to visit him at his estate before she takes her vows. Viridiana has met him only once, feels no loyalty, and really doesn’t want to see him, but her mother superior insists; after all, this is gratitude.
As you can see from the screenshot above, Don Jaime has issues. He’s been lonely since his young wife died, his young wife who looks a great deal like young Viridiana. In the evening, after everyone has retired, Don Jaime pulls out his wife’s wedding attire — and, well, tries it on. He’s a disturbed mind, supremely depressed and lonely. Viridiana sleep walks in on him. He knows it’s Viridiana, but in those dark hours it appears just as if his wife is returning from the grave.
The next day, Don Jaime, more disturbed than ever now, asks Viridiana to stay. She says no, but finally does give in on one of Don Jaime’s strange requests for one small favor (there’s that gratitude again): to dress up in the wedding attire herself. With the assistance of his servant Ramona (Margarita Lozano), Don Jaime corners Viridiana and makes a proposal, of sorts.
Now, for whatever reason, that tact didn’t work. Viridiana is determined to take her vows despite the generous offer. In fact, she is quite shock and dismayed.
So far this post has discussed only the first 20 minutes or so of this 1 hour and 30 minute film. When I first watched it, I simply had no idea what was coming after so much had already happened. And perhaps it’s best if you stop reading this and see for yourself as well. I’m going to go on, however, though not to the point of really spoiling things (I don’t think).
While Don Jaime is proclaiming his love to Viridiana, Ramona prepares a drugged drink. As planned, Viridiana falls into a deep sleep, Don Jaime takes her to bed, and the next scene is awful as we see him fight the temptation to rape her. He succeeds in overcoming his urge to violate her, but, because he thinks it will keep her home, when she wakes up he tells her she is no longer a virgin. She cannot possibly return to the convent now, he argues. How this would work in his favor, I don’t know, and it doesn’t; Viridiana is heading out. Wait, he cries, and tells her the truth:
Yes, that’s better, but not to the point of redeeming the mad man. Viridiana still leaves, gets to the bus station, and is forced to return when the police intercept her and tell her Don Jaime has committed suicide. This is at the 30 minute mark, so just what is going to happen in the last hour? It’s been sad so far, and now Viridiana feels guilt at the same time she is proud she did not give in. But how is this going to get so controversial?
Here’s a clue:
And the wedding attire figures in again too:
Don Jaime generously leaves his estate to two people: part will go to Viridiana and part will go to his illegitimate son, Jorge (Fransisco Rabal). Jorge has shown up at the estate with a woman yet flirts openly with Viridiana. As it turns out, Don Jaime’s suicide convinces Viridiana that she cannot return to the convent and take her vows; there is good work to be done outside. However, she isn’t just going to live in comfort at the estate. Feeling guilty for a variety of reasons (one of which she doesn’t even know if she should feel — is she a virgin, she must wonder), she has invited a troop of the poor, upon which she can cast her charity. This motley crew is pictured above at the incredibly controversial dinner shot.
Things just don’t go well for Viridiana. She knows nothing of the world — it’s a mess, corrupt, simply not salvageable — and cannot possibly manage her ill-advised project. Under their humble surface, this group would just as soon have her throat, or some other part of her, and it all comes to a head — and then, as the dust settles, we move to this curious final scene, which goes down in film history as one of the most provocative endings of all time.
It’s such a curious film, banned in Spain (until 1977), denounced by the Vatican (probably still). It is, in the words of a member of another forum, nine months’ pregnant with symbolism. I found that, agree with it or not, it was a visual feast, fun to pick apart, great to behold, a masterwork.