Viridiana

"Extraordinary"

Viridiana Review


"I don't have ideas," Luis Buñuel once stated in an interview for the French television show, Cinéastes de Notre Temps. "It's all instinct." That 1964 interview is included among the supplements in Criterion's just-released DVD of Viridiana, Buñuel's 1961 morality tale turned inside-out. Indeed, interpreting Buñuel's stories as a system of "ideas," as intellectually articulated attacks against church, class, and state, seems off the mark. Buñuel's movies are not manifestos; they don't function on an intellectual level as, say, Godard's cinema does, but at a more subliminal, and, thus, more deeply affecting one. Sure, Buñuel mistrusted social institutions, but who among us doesn't (unless you're on the board of Exxon or Halliburton)? Buñuel isn't interested in social institutions themselves, but in those human beings corralled by such institutions into large, unruly groups, and how quickly their conduct devolves into spasms of primal behavior. His movies wear the veil of social decorum, but it's not long before his characters' basest, most visceral appetites tear through and take over, along with Buñuel's comic-absurdist instincts that comprise the hallmark of his cinema.

With his steady, deadpan gaze, Buñuel follows his titular protagonist (Sylvia Pinal), a plainly beautiful nun on a visit to her lonely, estranged uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), thus beginning her descent into disillusionment. She learns not only that Don Jaime's wife died on their wedding night, but, weirdly enough, she reminds him of her. In a Buñuelian mind-trip, we watch as Don Jaime lingers privately over his long-departed's bridal gown and veil, tries on her satin slippers, and models her corset in the mirror. Is this guy kinky, or just morbidly grieving? We're not sure, even after he gets Viridiana to dress up like her, and proposes to his niece. When Viridiana, aghast, refuses, Jaime drugs her coffee and attempts to rape her before he's wracked with shame and backs away. His shame ultimately sends the lust-crazed, lovelorn Don Jaime up a tree and down a rope, but it also sends Viridiana into a tailspin of guilt. She decides to remain at the estate, to take in the village poor and tend to their comforts. Meanwhile, Don Jamie's illegitimate son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal) -- the product of the rake's one-time union with a peasant woman -- shows up, having inherited the property.

The class and sexual dynamics among these characters escalates in Viridiana's second half. The strapping Jorge takes up with the morose maidservant, Ramona (Margarita Lozano), but he's privately hankering for Viridiana. Still pure and unsuspecting, driven by religious purpose, Viridiana tries to create a harmonious commune out of her ragtag crew, but these guys are lazy, shiftless, and as intractable as spoiled children. Buñuel's slow-burn rhythm quickens towards an unforgettably outrageous sequence in which the rascally beggars take over the estate. Buñuel distills the anarchy on hand with a single moment in which the "dinner guests," during a raucous feast, all strike dramatic poses Last Supper-style. A woman hikes up her skirt, and takes their "photograph" with the most curious of cameras. After 45 years, that moment is still deliciously hilarious.

Buñuel's script, co-written with Julio Alejandro, masterfully wraps up the fate of a woman whose trust has been violated time and again. It's not her faith that betrays Viridiana, but her inherent goodness. But whereas a lesser filmmaker like von Trier (with his shockingly puerile Dogville) might've wallowed in the story's grimness and misanthropy, Buñuel knows to portray his characters in rounded shades, not just black and white, and to vary the tone. Buñuel, the master filmmaker, ably calibrates his compositions, cutting, and performances, between light and dark, so that we may swing from sympathy to revulsion even in a single scene. That the scurrilous beggars are, in their own perverse way, as endearing as the innocent Viridiana is a testament to the filmmaker's uncanny skill.

So does Buñuel despise human beings? The wisdom and humor at play in Viridiana, indicates otherwise. In spite of all their despicable yearnings, his characters all aspire to high ideals--whether they dwell in the street or in the manor. That they are ultimately defeated individuals or, worse yet, hypocrites, gives his humanism its bitter kick, its eternal complexity. Viridiana is quintessential Buñuel: a perfect entryway to his work, and a microcosm of his contradictory universe of the beautiful and the grotesque.

Along with the extended Cinéastes de Notre Temps excerpt, Criterion's disc also includes a trailer and interviews with Viridiana's lead actress (and Mexican icon) Sylvia Pinal and Buñuel aficionado Richard Porton.



Viridiana

Facts and Figures

Run time: 90 mins

In Theaters: Monday 19th March 1962

Distributed by: Criterion Collection

Production compaines: Unión Industrial Cinematográfica

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 20

IMDB: 8.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Luis Buñuel

Producer: Gustavo Alatriste

Starring: Silvia Pinal as Viridiana, as Jorge, as Don Jaime, José Calvo as Don Amalio, as Ramona, Victoria Zinny as Lucía, Teresa Rabal as Rita, Luis Heredia as El Poca, Joaquín Roa as Don Zequiel, José Manuel Martín as El Cojo, Lola Gaos as Enedina, Juan García Tiendra as José El Leproso, Sergio Mendizábal as El Pelón

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