One of cinema’s most controversial directors, Luis Buñuel was constantly at loggerheads with censors and, at times, even the Vatican. Viridiana, viewed as highly blasphemous and inflammatory by both, was initially banned by the Spanish Falangist regime, but managed to escape destruction via its principal actress, the Mexican Silvia Pinal, who smuggled a copy to Mexico where it was shown and reproduced.
It tells the story of a novice nun, Viridiana (Pinal), who is convinced by the mother superior to visit her dying uncle before committing herself to a convent. This visit turns into a catastrophe. Struck by her resemblance to his late wife, Uncle Jaime tries to seduce her, and then, firmly rejected, commits suicide. Guilt-ridden, Viridiana spurns the convent and stays on at her late uncle’s mansion seeking redemption. Her idea of redemption is simple; she will turn the mansion into a charity project for local vagabonds (including a prostitute, a leper, a blind man, a dwarf, a cripple and a beggar). This benign idea quickly backfires as the astonishingly brazen vagabonds take advantage of her good intentions, turning the mansion into an impious circus.
One of the most famously satirical scenes of Buñuel’s film is where the motley band of 13 vagabonds delight in Viridiana’s absence from the mansion by going on a spree of drinking and carousing, ransacking the dining room and setting up a photo-shoot re-enacting Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. In another comically cynical scene, Viridiana’s cousin Jorge – (another one who’d like to seduce Viridiana) admonishes a peasant for tying a dog to the wheel of his cart. He pays the peasant to free the dog. Meanwhile unseen to him, another cart-bound dog passes by in the other direction.
The end, where Viridiana joins in a game of cards with her cousin and his mistress, with its suggestive lines (‘esta noche todos los gatos son pardos’- ‘tonight all the cats are dark’, ‘have you ever played cards before, primita?...I’m sure you’re going to like it’), the resigned looks on Viridiana’s face and the rock n’ roll playing on Jaime’s radio, is full of satirical eroticism. Buñuel had initially wanted to conclude with Viridiana simply disappearing into Jorge’s bedroom, but this was refused by censors. That he got the morally even more dubious card-playing menàge a trois accepted by those same censors has long added an ironic footnote to the film’s legend. Finally, no Buñuel film would be complete without an indulgence of his infamous foot fetish (no director has ever spent so much film-reel following his heroines’ tootsies about), and, sure enough, he manages to cram one in by the fourth frame of the movie, a close-up of a girl rope-skipping.
After starting out as a surrealist, working on Un Chien Andalou with Salvador Dali, Buñuel spent most of his career in exile working in Hollywood and France, where he made his most iconic film Belle du Jour. That he was allowed to return to a fiercely Catholic, conservative Spain to make a film such as Viridiana – he had already upset a French patron, Le Vicomte de Noailles, with his fierce satirical assault on religion, L’Age d’Or in 1930 – was odd, as was his decision (much criticized by other prominent Republican dissenters) to return to a country governed by a regime he disapproved of. But in returning, he made a classic of Spanish cinema, playing with a sainthood myth in his own incomparable style, before quickly getting out of Spain again to see out his career in France and Mexico.
However blasphemous his film is viewed as being, the director maintained that he never intended to slight the concept of Christian charity, or ridicule the virtue of his protagonist. With Buñuel it is the irascible chaos of nature, the great leveler, which is ever poised to ridicule the best efforts of those that have pretensions of enlightenment.