director Luis Buñuel
How many truly radical filmmakers are there? Really, they are quite a rare breed.
I don’t know why I haven’t gotten around to seeing more films by Luis Buñuel, but after watching Viridiana, I will say that maybe I’ve just been watching the wrong ones.
Buñuel left Spain after the Spanish-American War, fleeing the Franco regime and relocating to Mexico. I think especially in our time in culture, it’s hard to appreciate how overtly political and ideological the world was leading up to World War II, what the significance of such actions as Fritz Lang leaving Germany after being approached by Joseph Goebbels reportedly approached him about heading the German Film Board. Or how politically sly and clever Buñuel was in returning to Spain to make a film under Franco that was so absolutely perverse and coarsely mordant.
I guess if you read the synopsis of Viridiana, it doesn’t shout out to you what it really is. It’s the story of a girl, the titular Viridiana (Sylvia Pinal), who is about to become a nun when she is asked to visit her long unseen uncle at his house in the country. That he falls in love with her sounds banal enough, but he tries on her clothes, drugs her and plans to rape her so that she cannot become a nun and will have to stay with him. Only when that plan fails, he hangs himself, leaving his estate to her and a child he fathered but never knew.
Viridiana takes this influx of wealth as an opportunity to try to do God’s work outside of the church. She takes in the town’s homeless, drunks and reprobates and gives them food and shelter. Only they are true drunks and reprobates. They were even hired off the streets, non-professional actors, playing the ones she is trying to save while they continue their scheming and debauchery. And her half-cousin, the bastard child of her uncle, has his own debauch in mind, peppered with his own semi-pious thoughts of salvation.
It’s far more than the thumbing of the nose. It reminded me, if anything, vaguely of Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), another social critique employing non-professional actors playing characters behaving badly, the metaphor for all society.
The film seems highly Catholic to me, or at least very interested in showing up the conventions of Catholicism. Buñuel gladly laughed that the film was an athiestic film, as he was an athiest. I get it. It’s still Catholic-flavored, even if it’s taking the piss hardcore.
It’s brilliant, though. Much more surprising and shocking than Buñuel’s later films that I’ve seen since I’ve been writing this diary,
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) or Belle de jour (1967). In the extras on the disc (Criterion always does this so well), in an interview from French television, Buñuel is hilarious and clever with such a devilish look in his eyes as he talks cinema. I was vaguely reminded of another short film I saw of Buñuel some long time ago that talked about him being a cartoonist originally? Am I remembering that correctly? It seems apropos.