Judge Brett Cullum ventures into the haunting world of Buñuel in the company of one very unlucky nun.
A surrealist masterpiece gets the Criterion treatment.
Luis Buñuel is a master of the strange mixed with the surreal, and his movies have been banned around the world for their disturbing images and inflammatory political themes. Modern-day filmmakers such as David Lynch (Wild at Heart) owe the director a huge debt for making trippy beautiful journeys that are often frustratingly obtuse. His films are ripe with symbolism, subversive messages, and haunting images that sear your imagination and scar your psyche for all time. Criterion has previously released four Buñuel films. How do they treat one of his most sought-after titles, Viridiana?
Facts of the Case
Viridiana is about an idealistic nun who is ordered to visit her sick uncle even though she is reluctant to leave the convent. She fears the outside world, and has no desire to reunite with her benefactor, who has always carried a torch for her dead mother. She does go to him, however, and confronts her relative about the bastard son he has disowned. The uncle is creepy, and seems to have his own agenda regarding the young novice in his house. He obsesses over her mother to the point that he occasionally puts on her wedding outfit (the parts he can). On Viridiana's last night in the house, he begs her to put on the bridal gown. He drugs her, but does not do much more than fondle her innocently. She longs to escape, but little does the young nun know what is in store for her.
The uncle hangs himself with a child's jump rope, and bequeaths the house and farm to Viridiana and his estranged son. The two of them move into the mansion; he takes to farming and she ministers to the poor. One night while they are out beggars invade the mansion and have an elaborate dinner party replicating the last supper of Christ and his disciples. When the two owners return, the invaders tie the son to a cupboard while a peasant attempts to rape Viridiana. The son successfully offers another man a large sum of money if he will kill the rapist, and a surprising bond begins to form between the nun and the new farmer.
Buñuel has always sought to map the human soul through his films, and not the pretty parts. He's interested in mining the darkness hiding in everyone, and doing it in the way a spectator would rather than acting as judge and jury. Viridiana is an interesting work because it does more than examine the human spirit: While it paints pictures of the tragic characters it simultaneously takes swipes at the Spanish class system and political targets. You can read the film on three levels: as a gothic horror story, a symbolic journey, or an indictment of the Catholic church and sociopolitical trends in Spain. It's a rich work and won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival the year it was made, and then was promptly banned in Buñuel's home country of Spain. The Vatican also completely denounced the film (a '60s version of The Da Vinci Code). Mexico came to the rescue by distributing Viridiana as well as giving Buñuel a new home base to work from.
Viridiana is not a commercial film but an artistic journey full of surreal images and moments. Yet, for all its pretentious, the story moves at a nice clip, and the characters are well fleshed out. Buñuel tells a good story, and he never lets his more arty elements take over the film or distract too much from the narrative thrust. This is not one of Buñuel's more surrealistic films, and it can be enjoyed as a good Gothic potboiler with many unique twists and turns to keep you entertained. Some argue that Viridiana is his best movie, and it certainly provides an easy way to enter his world of film without alienating viewers with opaque symbolism for its own sake.
There are many possible interpretations of the movie, but at the core seems to be the indifference of the people to the church that is trying to help them. The lead character, Viridiana, can be seen as the very embodiment of the Catholic mission to provide a solution to almost everything. She aspires to make the world a better place by ministering to the poor and needy, but they only take advantage of her good will. It is also possible to see each lead character as a representation of the political parties within Spain at the time the story was filmed, but that interpretation seems a stretch. Rumor has it that the Spanish leader at the time, Franco, banned the film only to appease the church and personally did not find the story offensive. Viridiana seems relevant today as the debate rages on about how to handle government assistance, and how effective it and the church are in helping people in dire circumstances who seem largely ungrateful for the aid. You can also see the film as a critique of false piety. Perhaps Buñuel is being critical of Viridiana's blind faith that she can help with such small gestures and that these things matter in the grand scheme. Buñuel was an admitted atheist, and the young novice's faith is painted as a cruel and unusual form of self-torture and denial.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unlike most Criterion releases, Viridiana sports a spotty transfer thanks to the age of the source elements used. Scenes vary in quality from moment to moment within the film, and overall the look is uneven though remarkably clear given the circumstances. It's a mixed bag, but wholly understandable: The source elements are hard to come by, since the film was smuggled into Mexico after the Spanish government banned it. This is about as good as Viridiana could hope to look or sound under anyone's supervision. For that reason I hate to harp on the transfer, but many people expect perfection from Criterion. The mono sound mix honors the source without any distortion. It's functional, and it sounds almost like stereo when you choose the two-speaker option on your sound system.
The extras are well thought out, but there isn't much here compared to other Criterion packages. There are two interviews—one with the lead actress from the film (Mexican film legend Silvia Pinal) and one with author Richard Porton. Both of these reveal the history of the production. As a curiosity we have an episode of a program called Cineastes de notre temps from 1964, which features a frank discussion with Buñuel about his career. Rounding out the extras is a booklet with interviews and essays on Viridiana. For such a dense important work I was expecting a commentary or more scholarly input, but neither is to be found.
Viridiana is a true Buñuel masterwork and a classic of the surrealist genre. Criterion has given the film a due amount of respect, even if the transfer is spotty in places. Extras could have been more plentiful, but the movie itself is so important you hardly mind. This is a film Buñuel fans have been clamoring for, and thankfully Criterion has finally delivered it. If you're a fan of the arty Davids (Lynch and Cronenberg), this is required viewing. Viridiana provides all the arty melodrama of A History of Violence coupled with the stunning visuals of Eraserhead.
Guilty of being a handsome addition to the Criterion catalogue. Viridiana is a true film buff's dream to add to a collection, and is not to be missed.
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Scales of Justice
• Interviews with Actress Silvia Pinal and Author Richard Porton
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