Friday, January 13, 2012

Luis Buñuel's Viridiana

The Criterion Collection releases Luis Buñuel’s film Viridiana on DVD in 2006 under license from Video Mercury Films S.A., a company that holds the rights to the film since 1991.  Janus Films distributed the film in the United States in 1962 and Uninci S.A. in Europe in 1961.  Buñuel, of course, directs this film, as well as writes the screenplay with Julio Alejandro.  He casts Silvia Pinal to play Viridiana, Francisco Rabal as Jorge, Fernando Rey as Don Jaime, Margarita Lozano as Ramona, and real people from off the streets of Spain to play a motley crew of beggars and degenerates.  To finance the production of this film, he receives help from the following producers: Ricardo Muñoz Suay of Uninci S.A., Gustavo Alatriste of Gustavo Alatriste P.C. de México, and Pere Portabella of Films 59.  The Criterion Collection also includes very valuable extras, including an interview with Silvia Pinal, an interview with Richard Porton, a trailer from the early 1960s to promote the film in the United States, and an episode of a French series called Cinéastes de notre temps.  The DVD jacket also states that the booklet accompanying the DVD contains an interview with Luis Buñuel and an essay by Michael Wood.  I presume the Michael Wood essay the DVD cover is referring to is “Viridiana: The Human Comedy,” which you can read by clicking here; but as to the interview, I do not have the booklet available to me at this time.

The movie itself tells of a young nun who wishes to take her vows and become a recluse after having studied for some time.  However, before she officially takes her vows, the abbess requests her to visit an estranged uncle, Don Jaime, who financed Viridiana’s education.  She reluctantly acquiesces and visits Don Jaime on his large estate.  While visiting, she tells him that although she is very grateful for his financial sponsorship, she does not have any familial affection for him.  As for Don Jaime, he cannot get past the fact that Viridiana looks exactly like his wife before she died.  Viridiana stays for a few days.  On the eve of Viridiana’s return to the convent, Don Jaime, having fallen in love with the apparition of his lost beloved in his niece, hatches a plan to keep the novitiate at the estate indefinitely.  He does so by requesting Viridiana to model in his wife’s wedding gown.  Although uncomfortable, Viridiana humors Don Jaime.  She thinks she is only relieving his forlornness.  Don Jaime tries to tell Viridiana something, but because of his incapability to ask her directly, Ramona intervenes and informs Viridiana that Don Jaime wishes to marry her.  Viridiana becomes distraught and wishes to leave immediately.  Don Jaime recants ever mentioning the matter and begs Viridiana to stay and have tea.  She returns to the sofa, but she does not realize that Don Jaime has motioned Ramona to slip some sleeping pills into her tea.  Upon drinking the tea, Viridiana faints into a deep sleep and Don Jaime carries her back to his room to make love to his niece/wife, only to have second thoughts and retreat at the last moment.  The next morning, Don Jaime tells her that he has raped her during the night in the hopes that she will finally stay at the residence.  Mortified by the possibility of having been raped, she packs her clothes and leaves.  Don Jaime tries to stop her by saying that he has, in fact, lied, but Viridiana has made up her mind.  She almost gets on the bus to take her back to the convent when she is stopped by civil guards.  They inform her that something has happened to her uncle.  When they return to the estate, they find Don Jaime hanging from a tree, obviously having committed suicide.  Viridiana, traumatized by her uncle’s death, has no choice but to stay, because Don Jaime has bequeathed the estate to her and to an illegitimate son in a suicide note or will.

The second half of the movie shows Viridiana and her cousin, Jorge, as they occupy the grounds and divide the inheritance.  She decides to use her half of the fortune for charitable pursuits while he plans to refurbish the estate and cultivate the land to produce a profitable enterprise.  Jorge lives in the mansion while Viridiana resides in a smaller building to teach and care for several homeless people.  She quixotically nurtures her flock with food, shelter, work, and Christian affection.  Her plans seem to go well until she and Jorge go out-of-town to finish some paperwork with a notary public.  While they are away, the beggars slip into the mansion, have a feast, and, before too long, destroy the dining room in an orgiastic revelry.  At this point, Jorge and Viridiana return to the house and fall into the clutches of a couple of miscreants.  The experience changes Viridiana’s life forever.

Critics have extolled Viridiana as being Buñuel’s finest masterpiece.  The film receives the coveted Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961.  According to Silvia Pinal, many thought at the time that Buñuel’s film would not be competitive enough owing to the fact that it was about a nun in Spain during the Spanish State.  Too many concessions would compromise Buñuel’s artistic integrity, they thought.  Despite all odds, it became a hit at the festival.  It also received a denouncement from the Vatican’s official newspaper, which prompted a backlash in Spain.  Franco reacted by destroying all the sets or any vestige of Buñuel’s work relating to the “blasphemous” film.  Henceforth the film was banned for many years after its release.  The Vatican’s denouncement also placed an obstacle in the film’s distribution, because many export licenses at the time would not permit “immoral” works to cross boundaries.  A hard legal battle ensued.  At much cost and with the dedicated help of French lawyers, the film was declared of Mexican origin, thereby categorizing this film as a Mexican production and distributing it to audiences in America.

In the interview with Richard Porton, he explains the various motifs seen in Viridiana, even though Buñuel “hated simplistic, reductive interpretations” of his work.  At one point in the interview, Porton explains the use of surrealistic objects in the film:

“It’s almost as if objects derive from everyday life have the potential to be imbued with qualities of the marvelous which was a main attribute of the surrealist ethos that you didn’t need to come up with something fanciful from the imagination.  Surrealism is rooted in everyday life and, if you just look hard enough, there can be a certain type of alchemy which is able to reveal itself in what the surrealists like to refer to as ‘objects of multiple use.’”

These objects of multiple use can be seen in images like the pen knife in the shape of a crucifix, a crown of thorns as an object of worship and as firewood, a dog tied to the axle of a carriage, and a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper as portrayed by mendicants.  One object that has the most uses in this film is a jump rope.  The uses it has include being a toy, a gift, a social icebreaker, a noose, an unholy relic, a belt, and a hold to pull away a rapist.  The wooden jump rope handles that Viridiana holds while resisting the criminal’s advances may even represent snakes in a certain context.  Buñuel may have been alluding to Saint Verdiana’s snakes that penetrated her cell during the latter end of her life as a recluse in an Italian monastery.  The idea adds an intriguing twist to the meaning of mortification of the flesh.  The wooden jump rope handles also represent other violent forces that intend to take advantage of Viridiana’s chastity, religiosity, and corporality.

Unlike other Buñuel films, Viridiana has a good share of music.  Normally, Buñuel eschews music in his movies.  Mozart and Handel figure prominently with choral and organ music, especially Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus during the beggars’ last supper.  I cannot trace the origins of a couple of songs, but when juxtaposed with various scenes, they take on an uncanny quality.  There is even an American-sounding rock and roll song called “Shake Your Cares Away” at the end during a card game.  (I cannot find out if it is a real song from the 1950s or 60s, or one just made for the movie.)  I find these choices significant, because they incorporate a zeitgeist of British and American cultural influences through the medium of phonographic records.  In a time when Spain is beginning to come out of its isolation from international affairs, the record player portrays a special status symbol of wealth and progression.  The presence of the record player invokes nostalgia of an earlier empire that Spain once was as well as promising a renewed cooperation with wealthier sovereignties.   When considering the dictatorial policies of censors at the time, it is astounding to think how many things got past them.  If I had more time and resources, I would look into British and American musical influences in Francoist Spain as well as in film and literature.

I recommend watching the extra feature that shows a short documentary of Luis Buñuel in French called Cinéastes de notre temps that aired on April 4, 1964.  I like this episode because it shows Buñuel in his most natural and personable character.  The interviewer and Buñuel discuss his history and work while overlooking the city of Toledo.  Surrealistic moments happen even during the interview.  The sound of a bus going by and the bray of a donkey off camera interrupt the interlocutors.  Buñuel suggests showing the donkey passing by in the final edit, which the producers do.  The interview holds a treasure trove of information about Buñuel and several of his works and experiences.

Georges Sadoul, a participant in this episode, recounts a story he heard about Buñuel to the interviewer.  It accurately describes Buñuel’s personality and artistic intentions.  It also explains perfectly the reaction his film has on Franco’s reputation and status.  This is what he relates below:

“His son Juan Luis told me a story that I adore, because it’s Buñuel in a nutshell.  He said, ‘My father had an idea of making a bullet, since he made his bullets himself, with such a weak charge that when the bullet was fired at him, it would slide off his clothes harmlessly.  He worked on it for months, and finally one day he said, “I’ve done it!”  To test-fire it, he took the precaution of lining up several dictionaries and old phone books.  He fired.  The bullet went through the target, through the phone books, through the wall and into the neighbor’s!’  That’s Buñuel in a nutshell.  When he makes a film, he says, ‘I hardly put anything in it!’ and it explodes.”

I like this movie for its thought-provoking allusions and interactions, a few of which I have just mentioned in this review.  Although it is not my favorite Buñuel movie, it is worth taking a couple of hours to view it once or twice.  There are thematic elements that can be shocking or disturbing for more sensitive viewers, but I would rate this film as PG-13.  Teenagers should be accompanied by adults while watching this film so as to answer any artistic or moral questions they may have during the film.  It will be a good exercise in critical thinking skills and interpretation.

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