Monday, May 31, 2010

This Is Spain Calling: Viridiana (1961)

This is the debut of a new series here at Cinewise - This Is {insert country name here} Calling, where we will introduce a classic from the "world cinema". Yes, these are the films where you have to read as well as watch - just think of them as picture-books. The first one in our series is a classic from one of cinema's greatest provocateurs.

Quite how Luis Buñuel's 1961 classic passed by the strict censorship laws of Spain beggars belief. Franco's regime was adamant to uphold the conservative, family-oriented, and ultra-Catholic values of Spain intact. So, every script had to be approved by a committee. Somehow, they didn't notice the incest or subtle and occasionally brilliantly in-yer-face blasphemy that oozes out of every single frame of this classic.

The authorities realised their "error" after Viridiana received Palme d'Or (the first screening of it anywhere, which probably helped it avoid any post-production censorship) and they received a damning (!) phone call from the Vatican. The film was subsequently banned in Spain (and in many other Catholic countries around the world) and Buñuel had to leave Spain for the second time to begin the most fertile and successful era of his filmmaking career.

Viridiana is summoned by her rich and reclusive uncle from the convent where she is a nun. What first starts off as a weekend getaway, soon takes an ugly turn for all concerned: the uncle (played by Buñuel regular Fernando Rey) soon falls in love with his niece, who resembles his long-dead wife, and drugs her in order to convince her the next morning that she is no longer a virgin. Even though we learn that he didn't really want to take advantage of her, there is a moment where he goes a little too far for an uncle. He comes clean next morning and lets her go, but before Viridiana can leave town, she is stopped by the Guardia Civil at the bus stop - her uncle had just killed himself. Wrecked by guilt, Viridiana leaves the convent and stays in the mansion. She dedicates her life to the poor and the disabled of the village, by housing them in the mansion and assigning them chores around the estate. Meanwhile, her uncle's disenfranchised son returns from the big city to take the reins in the running of the estate.

Viridiana is a very taut film that spares not a single scene in its modest running time. It is easy to judge it only for its superficial controversies: in an early scene we see Viridiana undress from her convent attire, which shows quite a bit of flesh; the uncomfortable scene where the uncle 'almost' deflowers her; the burning of her convent clothes at the end.  And, of course, the most famous scene of all, where a woman lifts her skirt up to the Last Supper scene. Needless to say, it all ends with the Sodom and Gomorrah burning to the ground.

However, the film is a lot more than what it offends. Its subtle references to the role of religion, family, and the Civil War make it one of the most intelligent films I have yet seen. You may not agree with what Buñuel posits here in terms of the state of humanity in general: we are all essentially evil, regardless of our religious beliefs, social status, or number of limbs our bodies have. The capitulation of Viridiana in the end, where she defrocks and joins in a card game is as haunting a scene as you can get - she has joined the convent to do away with the impurity of the world, but this was to conceal her real motive in life. She, like all of us, has ulterior motives. When she helps the downtrodden of the village, she is doing it for penance, but in the end it's her own penance - it will not save the world of anything. The seemingly amoral cousin soon emerges as the middle ground that we all aspire to be - live for the day and enjoy it while you can, because the rest, well, kinda sucks.

There is controversy here, but it's not the blasphemy or incest. It is the nihilistic worldview that it champions. You may agree or disagree with it - if Buñuel were alive today, he wouldn't care what we thought either way. But, there is one thing you cannot argue against: this is the masterwork of a master filmmaker.

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