Viridiana tells the story of a novice nun who, in the film’s opening scenes, is asked by her Mother Superior to visit her widowed Uncle Jaime. She has not seen him for many years but he has asked to meet her before she takes her vows. Spending the night at the farm where he lives with a handful of servants, she initially gives in to his request that she wears his late wife’s wedding dress, but is horrified when she later discovers that he wants to marry her. He drugs her but cannot go through with his plan to rape her. In the morning he first claims that he has taken her virginity but then admits that this was a lie contrived to force her to stay with him. Faced with her departure and his own disgrace, Jaime hangs himself and Viridiana finds that she has inherited the property along with Jaime’s illegitimate son, Jorge. In an act of Christian kindness Viridiana installs a group of vagrants and beggars in the farm’s outbuildings but while she and Jorge are away they break into the main house and help themselves to wine and food. Returning, Jorge is attacked and Viridiana is nearly raped, but the arrival of the police brings the violence to an end. However, these combined events have brought about a profound change in Viridiana, who, at the film’s close, seems to accept a ménage a trois with Jorge and one of the female servants, Ramona.
Luis Buñuel is cinema’s great iconoclast. In a career stretching for nearly 50 years, and including over 30 films made in France, Spain and Mexico, he mounted a consistent assault on his two principle targets: the bourgeoisie and the Catholic Church. In works that are coolly satirical and sometimes cruelly lacerating, he exposed human weakness, not least in the area of sexual appetite. With his roots in the surrealist movement of the 1920s and 1930s, he never lost his eye for the arresting image or his awareness of the bizarre and the wayward. For many, Viridiana is the perfect distillation of his favourite themes and methods as an auteur. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, it was subsequently banned outright in his native Spain (only receiving its premiere there in 1977) and was condemned by the Vatican as blasphemous. Provocation was always at the heart of the director’s vision.
To appreciate the intricacies of Viridiana, it’s worth placing it first within the chronology of Buñuel’s oeuvre. Buñuel was born in 1900 in Calanda, Spain to wealthy parents and was educated by the Jesuits. At 17 he went to live and study in the Residencia Estudiantes in Madrid where he remained for eight years enjoying its rich cross-fertilisation of ideas and creativity. He met Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, who both had a profound influence on him. Moving to Paris he made his first film, the 17-minute Un Chien Andalou (1929) in partnership with Dalí. From its unforgettable opening image of a man (played by Buñuel himself) slashing a woman’s eyeball, the film is one of cinema’s purest essays in surrealism, dredging ideas from its creators’ collective subconscious. Buñuel and Dali fell out during the making of L’Age d’Or (1930) but the film proved successful in offending the forces of reaction, resulting in attacks by right wing groups on the cinema where it was shown. In 1932 he made his first film in Spain with Las Hurdes, an experimental documentary exposing poverty and injustice in a remote rural area. The film suffered censorship by both the Republicans and later by Franco’s regime.
Unusually for a major filmmaker, he spent 14 years without releasing a feature film. For a period in the early 1930s he worked developing Spanish film production under the Republicans but by the end of the decade, and with their defeat in the Civil War, he had gone into a reluctant exile in America. Unsurprisingly, considering his instinctive antipathy towards conformity, he never found a suitable place within Hollywood’s studio system, working largely in the dubbing facilities at Warner Brothers. Eventually he decamped to Mexico where, between 1946 and 1965, he directed 19 films, re-establishing himself as a key creative figure in international cinema. Although some of his Mexican films were relatively conventional mainstream projects, he brought his characteristic irreverence to memorable work such as Los Olvidados/The Young and the Damned (1950) and the darkly satirical El Ángel Exterminador/The Exterminating Angel (1962).
In 1960 Buñuel was encouraged by the director Carlos Saura to return to Spain to make Viridiana. The Spanish film industry was under the tight regulation of the Franco regime but as a MexicanSpanish co-production Buñuel was able to retain control of its content under the noses of the Fascists. They were, however, to take their revenge. Despite its initial success at Cannes, the authorities used the condemnation by the Vatican as their excuse to ban the film from cinemas at home and to disown the film’s Spanish nationality; it was released internationally as a Mexican film. They also instigated a backlash against the more liberal elements within Spanish film production in the wake of the ‘scandal’ (Jordan and Allinson 2005: 20).
At the centre of the narrative of Viridiana is the theme of l’amour fou, much beloved of the surrealists of the 1930s. Providing an exact definition for the term remains difficult but its roots lie in Freud’s notion of repressed desire. L’amour fou is the urge of the primitive within us which, due to societal pressures, finds distorted expression through fetishistic obsession. Uncle Jaime has never recovered from the shock of his wife’s death in his arms on their wedding night. In secret he caresses her clothes and tries to put on her shoes. Viridiana’s resemblance to her aunt causes Jaime to partially lose control of his inhibitions. He pressures her into wearing his wife’s wedding dress. When she declines his proposal of marriage, he drugs her and carries her to his bed where he partially undresses her and kisses her breasts. Yet his conscience, or his sense of propriety, keeps pulling him back. Caught between desire and guilt he eventually takes his own life. But he is not the only one affected by l’amour fou. Ramona cannot resist Jorge, despite his obvious disregard for women. Sexual violence seems constantly just beneath the surface and erupts when two of the vagrants assault Viridiana. Even she is not exempt. Her religious observations are decidedly fetishistic too; she carries with her to her Uncle’s house a wooden cross, nails and a hammer, and her own crown of thorns.
Religion is clearly a target in the film, but so are the middle classes who are invariably depicted as hypocritical and greedy. Viridiana is sent back to her Uncle’s house because he has sent her dowry to the convent; in other words, he buys her back. Despite his acts of kindness, it is obvious that Jaime lives in great wealth whereas his servants are poor. Ramona is forced to become complicit in his plans to deflower Viridiana because she feels grateful that he has taken in both her and her daughter. The final orgy of destruction is brought about when the gang of beggars has access to the wealth of the big house, something that the feckless Jorge has inherited by birth. Hypocrisy is also a target in relation to the church, something we are reminded of during the beggar’s feast when they play a gramophone record so that they can dance drunkenly only for the recording to be Handel’s Messiah. The prevalence of double standards is symbolised by Jorge’s discovery of a crucifix owned by his father, which also contains a retractable knife. Viridiana rescues the poor vagrants partly as an expression of her Christian ideals, but also because she feels a quite groundless guilt over her uncle’s death; the Mother Superior points out her pride. We see further evidence when she feeds the beggars, as she appears as much pleased for her own sake as for theirs. When one of them is angered by her rules (the men and women sleep in separate dormitories, they must work, and bedtime is set at eight in the evening), he has to accept her commands or leave.
However, the attack on religion goes much further than this. Viridiana’s acts of Christian charity are shown to be futile. The beggars take advantage of her, just as her uncle had tried to do, and end by stealing from the house, tying up Jorge and almost raping her. Her progression through the film is one of utter disillusionment, culminating in her discarding her crown of thorns, which Ramona’s daughter then throws on the fire. By the end, she admits that she has changed. Our last sight of her is when she joins Jorge and Ramona in the kitchen in a game of cards and he tells her, ‘All cats are grey at night’. Buñuel later revealed in his memoirs that the Spanish censor objected to the original ending which depicted Viridiana entering Jorge’s bedroom with the door closing behind her (Buñuel 1985: 237). With appropriate irony, the revised ending, which satisfied the censors, is actually more suggestive in its possible sexual connotations. Despite the parody of Leonardo’s Last Supper, the film seems less blasphemous than utterly nihilistic. The tone is not celebratory but deadpan and sardonic. The final recognition that Viridiana’s ideals have come to nothing is not a cause for satisfaction but for desolate recognition of the inevitable. This theme is encapsulated in one short sequence when Jorge rescues a dog from a passing traveller who has the poor creature tied to the back of his wagon. Shocked by the neglect that has left the animal exhausted he buys it from its owner. However, as he happily sets off across the fields he doesn’t notice a further wagon passing behind him with another dog tied to it. With complete disregard for his own actions, he later tells Viridiana that she will never end suffering and injustice by trying to save a few beggars. The bleak inference being that it’s a waste of time to try to change the world for the better.
The power of Buñuel’s vision is amplified by the restraint of his technique. There is little in the way of showy cinematic devices, with the exception of a rapid montage contrasting Viridiana leading her flock of vagrants in prayer with the mundane world of progress around them as Jorge’s hired workers set about modernising the farm. As Gwynne Edwards observes, ‘Buñuel exposes the inner life, the desires and unconscious urges of his characters’, not through overtly Freudian imagery but by quietly observing their responses, such as Jaime surreptitiously looking at Viridiana’s bare legs or Viridiana herself wanting to milk a cow but struggling to handle its udders (Edwards 1985: 164). Instead of obviously directing the viewer’s gaze, Buñuel allows his camera to pan and track towards his point of attention, almost casually finding the revealing detail. He invariably keeps the camera back, never allowing us too close to his characters. We have little choice but to coolly observe their moral failure.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Spain and Mexico. Production Company: Unión Industrial Cinematográfica (UNINCI), Gustavo Alatriste and Films 59. Director: Luis Buñuel. Producer: Gustavo Alatriste. Screenwriters: Luis Buñuel and Julio Alejandro. Cinematographer: Jose F. Aguayo. Music: Gustavo Pittaluga. Editor: Pedro del Rey. Cast: Silvia Pinal (Viridiana), Francisco Rabal (Jorge), Fernando Rey (Don Jaime), Margarita Lozano (Ramona), José Calvo (Beggar).]
Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath, London: Flamingo, 1985. Originally published as Mon Dernier Soupir (1982). English translation by Abigail Israel. Gwynne Edwards, The Discreet Art of Luis Buñuel: A Reading of his Films, London: Marion Boyars, 1985.
Peter William Evans, The Films of Luis Buñuel: Subjectivity and Desire, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Peter William Evans and Isabel Santaolalla (eds), Luis Bunuel: New Readings, London: BFI, 2003.
Graham Harper and Rob Stone (eds), The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film, London: Wallflower, 2007.
Barry Jordan and Mark Allinson, Spanish Cinema: A Student’s Guide, London: Hodder and Arnold, 2005.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.