Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Second Thoughts on Luis Buñuel's Viridiana

The following review is a continuation of a previous film review, which you can read by clicking here.  One word got me ruminating on this topic for quite some time, and I wanted to jot down my incipient thoughts.  I have learned from school that there are literary movements or interpretations called “theories” that bring a sense of variety to literary discussions.  For example, literary theories can include New Criticism, Feminism, Post-colonialism, Postmodernism, and even Queer Theory, among many others.  These movements come and go like seasonal fashions.  When I think about my niche in a possible literary theory, I have the impression that academicians look for “new” and “original” ideas from prospective graduate students. That is a tall order if we really think about it.  As I develop my skills in criticism, how can I work upon established literary theories and be fresh and original, too?  One fantasy I have is that a future literary theory called “LDS Interpretation” would develop and become a sensation in the world of literary criticism (or “Mormon Theory” if the rest of the world wants a more derogatory moniker reflecting a Sartrean Other).  That would spark my motivation to blaze trails and pioneer research into unknown territory, but my idea may be wishful thinking on my part.  However, if I am to become an original and creative critic, I must take risks.  So, seeing that the following topic applies to the theme of the blog, I hereby contribute an addendum to Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana.  In this possible example of an article using Mormon Theory, I use scriptural sources from the LDS canon to unfold a likely interpretation of a cinematic text.

When I last had the DVD of Viridiana, there was an extra containing an interview with Silvia Pinal.  In one part of the interview, she retells her concern about Viridiana’s final outcome.  She does not like the thought of a traumatized girl revoking her vows as a nun and jumping into a ménage à trois with Jorge and Ramona.  She brings up this concern to Luis Buñuel and he takes the time to persuade her that the ending is necessary for Viridiana.  The director describes the charitable novitiate’s role as “useless” to society at large.  Buñuel goes on to say that after having a moment of doubt, Viridiana would have children, work the land producing food, and become a skillful contributor to the local community.  So the trauma that Viridiana experiences essentially transforms her from a “useless” virgin to a “useful” mother.

What bothers me is Buñuel’s use of the word “useless” to describe Viridiana.  Granted, her plans to set up a homeless shelter fail because of a lack of planning and a dollop of naïveté, but her efforts are not “useless.”  The word makes her out to be some kind of idler or dimwit.  Further, Buñuel implies that the Catholic religion as a whole cannot meet or support the needs of individual members on the front lines.  In other words, it is too big to waste its power over saving one nun in a predicament.  Others may say Viridiana chooses not to return to the convent out of a vainglorious need to found her own order, yet she tries to return to the convent, a decision that would have ensconced her back into the center of the fold.  Unfortunately, two people prevent her from returning: her uncle, Don Jaime, and her mother superior.  The former assaults her honor and reputation, and even if technically Viridiana still retains her virginity, the church would have balked under the slightest suspicion of impurity.  The latter insists that Viridiana puts on appearances to give gratitude for her uncle’s patronage, despite Viridiana’s pleas to the contrary.  Viridiana’s gut instinct tells her that she is not fit to leave the convent and that visiting her uncle is not a good idea.  The mother superior does not listen and neglectfully sends Viridiana on her way.  If the mother superior had reconsidered sending Viridiana to a family relative the nun hardly knew or trusted, Viridiana would have continued being a “useful” teacher at the Catholic school for children.  Further, if the mother superior and the people higher up had reconsidered sending Viridiana on a public relations errand, she would not have been lost to the world, Don Jaime would not have committed suicide, and revelries would not have ensued to injure property and people.  The problem with Viridiana is not her uselessness; it is because she is useful, a trait that others exploit for their own agendas.

The truly useless people in the film are the beggars and the needy, not Viridiana.  The beggars see her as a means to get material goods, not as a source to learn valuable skills in kindness, spirituality, responsibility, accountability, and self-sufficiency.  Had the beggars truly appreciated Viridiana’s charity, they would not have betrayed her trust and would have given restitution for their offenses.  They would have stayed and cleaned up the mess they had made.  Instead, the majority runs away while a few remain to commit crimes against their benefactress.

One of the most provocative scenes in the movie shows a beggar sexually assaulting Viridiana after knocking out Jorge with a bottle.  The polarity between good and evil contrast strongly.  In Buñuel’s limited scope of the film, the scene suggests the inability of the Catholic institution to protect its functionaries, or at least have the foresight to prevent the possibility in the first place.  It appears in this instance that the world does what it wants with good people.  This disregard to spiritual or holy law seems to go with impunity.  I want to prove otherwise.  I have looked for any doctrine or source that vindicates Viridiana as a “useful” member of society as far as a Christian Deity was concerned.  Whatever the case, Viridiana would be the means through which a universal justice condemns guilty parties.

First of all, I have looked in the scriptures to see if they could shed some light on the question of usefulness or uselessness.  But before I do, I want to clarify an element about Viridiana’s situation.  In the movie, Viridiana, after experiencing two assaults on her person, decides to abandon her goals in becoming a nun and returns to civilian life.  Buñuel would argue that Viridiana’s choice of not returning to the convent evidences doubt as the defining force driving her life.  He uses the word “doubt” to indicate actions his characters experience in life-changing moments.  I contend it is not.  Doubt is too strong a word.  I prefer “question.”  Viridiana questions her previous decisions to be a nun and follows an unknown path.  It is not doubt in the sense that she abandons her work and faith, but a readjustment that is within her power to make.  Viridiana questions her role in the religious and worldly systems, and starts on a different path than she originally anticipated.  Does she forego taking vows?  Yes, but from my LDS perspective and understanding about ecclesiastical authority, Viridiana is perfectly justified in choosing to “produce fruit and be a mother” that Buñuel sets her out to do.  In the end, I agree with Buñuel’s outcome for Viridiana, but I do not agree with his categorization of her before she leaves her post.  If doubt must come into the equation, then Viridiana’s doubt is an anti-faith that is against the institution that failed her and an exercise of free will; but anti-faith implies that Viridiana discontinues believing in God.  Hence, question is a better term.  She can still question an imperfect, man-operated organization without having to lose faith in a religion.  When she takes the time to prepare to make her vows, she rightfully expects the church to provide her with safety and security.  She performed her part of the bargain by complying with her superiors’ demands.  However, the Catholic system fails to pay her due diligence at a time she needs it most.  Viridiana fulfills her part, but the organization does not; therefore, Viridiana is under no obligation to continue upholding her vows while the church fails to uphold its promises.

Having said that, I now investigate into scriptural sources to validate Viridiana’s efforts and qualify her as useful.  I think of charity as one of Viridiana’s useful characteristics.  A number of results come back.  The first result appears relevant, because Viridiana seeks to do good works.  Her short time with the homeless people shows that she has faith in the potential good of people: “And see that ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works” (Alma 7:24).  Abounding in good works implies that they are useful as long as faith, hope, and charity corroborate them.  Viridiana complies with these requisites and does good works to the people that surround her.

I then search for certain keywords in the scriptures.  The citations tend to condemn the beggars that disobey Viridiana’s rules.  By stealing into the main mansion, they have more to fear of becoming useless creatures than Viridiana does.  A New Testament prophet describes their shortcomings and actions succinctly: “These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear: clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever” (Jude 1:12-13).  This particularly labels the blind man who smashes the dishes on the table upon hearing that his girl is rolling around with a man behind the couch.  The blessing he leaves while passing Jorge during the discovery of their revelry sounds especially empty and hypocritical.

I continued looking up “useless” in my scriptural sources.  I came upon an entry in the LDS Bible Dictionary for Jeremiah.  This prophet bears the same tribulations like Viridiana.  “After Josiah’s death he tried to stem, almost alone, the tide of idolatry and immorality, of self-deception founded on superficial reforms (3:4-5; 7:8-10), and of fanatical confidence in the Lord’s protection, in which all classes were carried away” (BD Jeremiah 711).

The entry continues to discuss Jeremiah as a type of fetish for the escaping Jews.  Viridiana can be seen as a type of fetish.  Buñuel does portray her feet in that fashion.  But in the case of the rapists, she is a fetish that embodies purity and virginity.  They treat her in the same way, almost, as Jeremiah: “After the fall of Jerusalem the Jews who escaped into Egypt took Jeremiah with them as a kind of fetish (43:6), and at last, according to tradition, stoned him to death” (BD Jeremiah 711).  The beggars play along with Viridiana’s philanthropic experiment until they either abandon her or assault her.

Another attribute that vindicates Viridiana is that she truly wants to become better than she is herself.  Her actions speak from the heart whereas her followers go through just the motions.  Unfortunately, her followers, although recognizing that she has a heart of gold, uselessly ignore her admonitions and charity.  Viridiana mirrors Jeremiah again: “The prophet dwells much on the inwardness of the Lord’s relation to the mind of his servants.  External service is useless where there is no devotion of heart and life; superficial reforms were of no avail—a complete regeneration in the national life was required.  He develops the idea of individual fellowship with the Lord (5:1, 7, 26-28; 9:1-6; 18); though the Jewish state falls, the Lord remains, and religion remains in the life of the individual” (BD Jeremiah 711, emphasis in original).  The beggars do not comply with Viridiana’s regimen; therefore, their external service constitute as superficial.

I really do not find an explicit use of the word “useless” in the scriptures, but what about “useful” in the scriptures?  Unfortunately, the word acts in a completely utilitarian sense as it applies to food and beasts of burden: “Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain” (D&C 89:17).  A Book of Mormon prophet uses the word to describe the same as well: “And also all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep, and of swine, and of goats, and also many other kinds of animals which were useful for the food of man” (Ether 9:18).

I decide to try a different term, because “useless” and “useful” bring back scant results.  I choose “offend,” because the rapists or assaulters offend Viridiana in the master bedroom in an injurious way.  Being an innocent and charitable hostess, she attempts to deflect the forces that take advantage of her.  Although it appears contrary, I stress that a universal justice sides on behalf of “useful” people, even in times of dire straits.  The assaulters do get their comeuppance shortly following their crime.  Jesus warns, “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).  Mormon continues this line of thought in the Americas: “And it would be better for them if they had not been born.  For do ye suppose that ye can get rid of the justice of an offended God, who hath been trampled under feet of men, that thereby salvation might come?” (3 Nephi 28:35).  Viridiana faints before she gets saved, but she is saved nonetheless.  The offenders do not.

The way Viridiana gets saved after she passes out from her exertion to stop the assault is through her cousin, Jorge.  He, while tied up, bribes the disabled hobo with money.  The hobo takes his offer even though earlier he was waiting for his accomplice to give him a turn with the nun.  He kills him by smashing the offender’s head with an ash shovel.  He gets the money, but the civil guard comes upon the premises shortly after.  It does not take a lot of imagination to conclude that the hobo will be prosecuted severely after that.  (As to the ethical question of Jorge’s conduct in manipulating the hobo to murder his partner, it lies outside the scope of this article.)

Viridiana survives, but psychological wounds remain.  But wounds do not disqualify her standing as a useful person.  Her useful charity ultimately saves her from a worse destiny.  Her charity comes in her favor.  Consider the following:

“And it was the more righteous part of the people who were saved, and it was they who received the prophets and stoned them not; and it was they who had not shed the blood of the saints, who were spared—

“And they were spared and were not sunk and buried up in the earth; and they were not drowned in the depths of the sea; and they were not burned by fire, neither were they fallen upon and crushed to death; and they were not carried away in the whirlwind; neither were they overpowered by the vapor of smoke and of darkness” (3 Nephi 10:12-13).

The two miscreants suffer punishment in a less epic manner, of course, but I am thinking more along the lines like this: “But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed” (Mormon 4:5).  Some may say that since God allows a person, in this cinematic case, to kill a rapist while in the act as punishment, then they can conclude that God is also wicked, thinking that only the wicked punish the wicked.  No, that is not the case.  It is Jorge who “stirs up the heart” of the disabled hobo to commit the murder.  Jorge certainly is wicked enough to even suggest an idea to a mentally slow creature, for why does not he suggest that he just wrangle the rapist away instead?

The abuse inflicted upon useful people by useless ones seems to indicate a pattern of closed-minded and wretched folk.  Alma, speaking about Zenock, an unknown Old Testament prophet, confirms this practice saying, “And now, my brethren, ye see that a second prophet of old has testified of the Son of God, and because the people would not understand his words they stoned him to death” (Alma 33:17).  The assaulters did not care for Viridiana’s charity and teaching.  Viridiana’s example is very useful for the betterment of the indigents’ lives and circumstances.  The useless folks just decide not the heed the wise nun.

At this point, another question comes to mind: Is Viridiana raped twice in the story or not?  The shots are ambiguous enough to suggest either.  Technically, the answer is no, because we simply do not see it portrayed and Don Jaime tells Viridiana, “I lied.”  However, surrealistically speaking—which I believe is the case in this film—Viridiana does suffer from post-traumatic stress comparable to a rape victim’s.  The Spanish sense of honor and virtue, whether or not Viridiana is at fault, dictates that her reputation, even under appearances, has been sullied.  Imagined or not, her circumstance bars her from returning to an atmosphere that requires purity in spirit and in body to serve as a nun.

Viridiana could have chosen to return to the convent and assert that she is guiltless, but she does not.  She does not, because the prying questions of worthiness from her peers and superiors would distract all of them from the spiritual work at hand.  Unity is the key in any organized religious institution, and, although innocent of any sexual wrongdoing, Viridiana understands the potential harm she could do on its reputation.  She figures the situation would be more secure to trust her capitalist cousin, who appreciates her physical beauty anyway, than it would be under the mercy of a strictly celibate atmosphere.  She fixes herself up as best she knows how and begins “shuffling the deck” with Jorge and Ramona.  Does she make a wrong decision?  Not necessarily, and I think Buñuel portrays that.

Buñuel is an atheist, but I intuit that he graciously allows others to practice their religion according to their consciences.  Buñuel, I believe, contests against the clericalism readily apparent in the culture.  He is, however, not antireligious.  It is certainly in the realm of possibilities that, as a professed atheist, he still holds some religious beliefs.  Father Valentín Arteta Luzuriaga, S.J., plays on this idea in another extra entitled Cinéastes de notre temps on the DVD.  As to what they are or which ones, I do not know.  Buñuel says one thing at one moment and says something else the next.  I do have an idea of one possibility: Buñuel is a cultural Catholic and that can explain a lot of motifs in his films.

When I look at the cinematic and literary clues, I wonder if Buñuel had in mind the last chapter of Proverbs.  Before writing the screenplay Viridiana, does Buñuel consciously or subconsciously envision Viridiana as a modern mother of King Lemuel?  Could it be that Viridiana is just a story a mother tells her son about how she met his father?  The idea is plausible.

Imagine Viridiana telling her experiences to her son and the wisdom she has gained from those experiences:

“The words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him.

“What, my son? and what, the son of my womb? and what, the son of my vows?

“Give not thy strength unto women, nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings.

“It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor the princes strong drink:

“Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.

“Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.

“Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.

“Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction.

“Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.

“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.

“The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.

“She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.

“She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.

“She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

“She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.

“She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

“She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.

“She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.

“She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.

“She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.

“She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.

“She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.

“Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.

“She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

“Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.

“She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.

“She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.

“Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.

“Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.

“Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

“Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:1-31).

Viridiana has always been a useful member of society.  She is a good person that has had her share of disappointments and setbacks.  She questions her place in the grand scheme of things, but she does not doubt.  Answers and justice may not come when she wants, but they do come.  She needs to be given the compassion that she has sought to give, but which her congregation and her supervisors failed to reciprocate.  Her followers and her superiors are the true useless people.