Friday, April 21, 2017

Viridiana (1961)

Spain / Mexico, 90 minutes
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Julio Alejandro, Luis Buñuel, Benito Perez Galdos
Photography: Jose F. Aguayo
Music: Bach, Mozart, Handel, Gustavo Pittaluga
Editor: Pedro del Rey
Cast: Silvia Panal, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey, Jose Calvo, Margarita Lozano, Jose Manuel Martin, Victoria Zinny

I was a little surprised when I realized this is the first movie by director and cowriter Luis Buñuel I've encountered yet on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? I've had mixed feelings about the work of the Spanish Surrealist provocateur ever since a 16-mm version of the 16-minute film Un Chien Andalou more or less blew my mind when I saw it in high school at 16. Later viewings of some of his others, including Viridiana, have often occasioned a bewildered confusion that feels like disappointment. Do I have to read a book to get this? Now I wonder if something similar might be going on with critics at large, just by the patterns in the TSPDT list. Buñuel actually has no fewer than seven titles in the top 200, more than any other director at the moment (Alfred Hitchcock is closest with six) but also with the slowest start: Viridiana is presently the highest at only #81, followed by L'Age d'Or at #118, Los Olvidados at #124, Un Chien Andalou at #135, The Exterminating Angel at #143, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie at #152, and Belle de Jour at #197.

When I looked up ranking histories I saw a similar pattern, a kind of generalized slow-motion fall from favor. L'Age d'Or, for example (the one that made me wonder if I should have read a book first), has previously spent time in the top 100, as high as #72, but with overall steady drops. Un Chien Andalou is an exception, with a somewhat erratic journey higher starting at #198—a few years ago it jumped from #165 to #117, though it has fallen off of that recently. Viridiana, in fact, is the only permanent resident to this point in the top 100, reaching as high as #68. That would appear to make it, then, the aggregated consensus choice as Buñuel's best. But we have some idea of how aggregated consensus works, highlighting odd choices (Hitchcock's Vertigo is a similar case), especially when votes are split. In historical terms, Viridiana is actually something more like a comeback picture, making a big splash at Cannes and reminding people how good Buñuel could be as a filmmaker. In turn, that opened doors to contracts and at least two much better pictures by my lights, Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm.

But we'll get to the rest of his stuff in due order, so I will stick with the strange beast that is Viridiana. As much as anything, it is caustically anti-Catholic, but in many ways it's more fundamentally two short pictures yoked together. There's less poo flinging in the second part. Sister Viridiana (Silvia Panal) is a gorgeous blond '60s dish who is about to take her orders and become a nun. Her Mother Superior and evident mentor counsels her to visit her uncle before that, as if to close out her former life. The uncle is Sister V.'s only living relative, though the truth of the blood relations among the characters gets murky as we go along, likely due to illegitimacy or possibly adoption. As it happens, her uncle (Fernando Rey) is a widower and a sophisticated European pervert who is obsessed with his dead wife. Sister Viridiana's visit turns out to be a series of bizarre events and strange tensions, as we travel briefly into hothouse regions of de Sade, wearing nun's garb.

Actually, like Buñuel himself (according to DVD extras), her uncle mostly appears to be a foot fetishist, though as a sophisticated European pervert he also has a thing about virgins. Plus Viridiana reminds him uncannily of his dead wife, and then he just sort of ... loses control. In a black comedy kind of way, of course. For her part, Viridiana is more on the line of a certain classic stereotype of masochist—she travels with her own crown of thorns and a cross big enough to knock out an intruder. She wears garments of coarse fabric and sleeps on the floor or hard beds. She also sleepwalks, gathering up ashes from the fireplace and doing something insulting with them, which she later apologizes for.

As a nonbeliever, I admit there's something luridly appealing about degrading the Catholic church and its ways so single-mindedly. It's a blasphemer's delight, but that caused Buñuel all kinds of problems. In fact, after all the preproduction hoopla, it never played in Spain—which is where he was coming back to—until 1977. For me it works a little bit like an Addams Family episode, or maybe Sunset Blvd. torqued even a few more degrees toward the bizarre, set in a big old wheezy mansion with large fireplaces and formal meals. This first story goes to some loopy and entertaining places before it ends abruptly (spoiler alert) with the death of her uncle. We have reason to believe that Sister V.'s hymen is still intact but she has decided to leave the church and stay at the estate, feeling guilty and responsible for the death. It's not clear she has title to the property, because suddenly a long-lost son—who is somehow not her cousin—shows up with his wife to look the property over. The new couple is modern and 20th century.

At this point, Viridiana enters a reasonably well thought through Allegory Land. On the one hand, Viridiana takes the role of the activist WWJD church, opening the rooms of the place and their food stores to the poor, sick, and disabled in the area. Jorge (Francisco Rabal), the long-lost son and her leering smacking counterpart in the power balance, has the role of rapacious capitalism, shrewdly assessing the potential value of the land and property and recognizing no authority beyond the here and now. The woman he showed up with isn't his wife at all. When Jorge thinks he might have a chance with Viridiana he summarily ejects this woman from the movie. In the meantime, the maid, Ramona (Margarita Lozano), will do as a squeeze.

It's all a kind of thought experiment about society and its ludicrous class structure inevitably devolving down into chaos and anarchy, weakness, drunkenness, depravity, and violence. The kindnesses of the naïve Viridiana are soon betrayed (spoiler alert) by the impoverished figures gathering at the mansion, who have their own short-term agendas, as the impoverished always must. They are no better or worse as human beings, but human beings in Buñuel's not inapt judgment tend toward the worst as a rule. The anti-Catholic animus returns in the form of a corrupted tableau of the Last Supper, staged by the beggars when they are left in charge of the house for an evening, which is probably the most famous image in the movie. Indeed, after the eyeball scene in Un Chien Andalou, the Last Supper scene in Viridiana is likely Buñuel's most famous. That would also explain the relative staying power of this one over the others.

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