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DVD Review: Viridiana

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The criticism of intent is a killer on bad films that have no real depth and do not last a few years beyond their intent’s purpose. Such was re-emphasized to me during a viewing of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s vastly overrated black and white 1961 "shock classic" Viridiana.

Of course, all the alleged shock value had to do with Buñuel’s puerile attempts to poke fun at and scandalize both the Roman Catholic Church and the regime of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and nearly five decades later it looks more like a college prank video than any serious cinema. Furthermore, it is not in the least bit subversive, as many poor critics claim, because its criticism of the Church especially, even then, was so manifest as to make one wonder if those who claimed it had subversive qualities even knew what the term meant.

Of course, given Buñuel’s start as a Surrealist superstar – that overused and often misapplied term – it’s no surprise that much of his filmic career would be seen through such a pretentious lens, especially by fans masquing as critics, rather than dealing with the individual films, and whether they fail or not.

The fact is, while Viridiana is a reasonably capably made film on a technical level (although there is no standout cinematography, musical scoring, nor interesting visual compositions), it fails because its screenplay is abysmal. As in other "classics" of his whose luster has faded (think Belle De Jour), Viridiana is larded with cardboard characters, caricatures, and outright stereotypes that are bad enough alone, but given that they are not put to any truly subversive use, they are all the more a wasted effort. They also suggest the paper-thin grasp of reality, especially the political sort, that die hard Leftists like him are often represented as having, making him the biggest unintended caricature of all those associated with the film.

The lead titular character is a sexy, blond wannabe nun, perhaps nearing thirty, who has hidden away from the world after what seems to be a lifetime of failure — at life, love, relationships, and generally communicating and fitting in with others of the human race. She is cold, withdrawn, repressed; but unlike such heroines in an Ingmar Bergman film, she lacks any real depth to express these things to even herself. In short, she is a clueless wonder.

Part of this is the abysmal characterization of Buñuel, and part of this is the rather leaden acting of Silvia Pinal. Whereas an actress like Catherine Deneuve would also float about trance-like in a film like this, Deneuve at least had a seductive, girlish innocence that could appear to lend more to her characters. Pinal is merely a cipher, with small hints of misanthropy thrown in for good measure. This makes her less like the Deneuve character in Buñuel’s later Belle De Jour, and more like that actress’s character in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

Inexplicably, Viridiana is ordered by her Mother Superior to visit the estate of her libidinous uncle, Don Jaime, played by Buñuel regular Fernando Rey. She has not seen him in years, even though he paid for her education. Of course, he claims to be dying, and there are family secrets galore in the rich man’s manse. He had a son out of wedlock that he never told his dead wife about, and that wife also died on their wedding night.

Two things can be surmised, even though Buñuel’s script moves so fast and elliptically that a viewer hardly cares about much that occurs early on. The first is that the bastard son will show up in the film (which he does), and the second is that perhaps Jaime killed his wife due to his obvious sexual perversions. He is a closet transvestite and loves female feet — be they Viridiana’s or those of the small girl, Rita (Teresa Rabal), of his servant Ramona (Margarita Lozano).

Another thing that is excruciatingly manifest — the old man’s dead wife looks remarkably like Viridiana. This tired plot point has been used in countless films and soap operas, yet Buñuel is oblivious to its triteness, as he does nothing to subvert the point, nor even burlesque it. Jaime is such a trite creation that when he utters melodramatic lines like, "You must think I’m mad," before proposing to his niece, Buñuel plays it as if it were some great dramatic moment, rather than the naked revelation of this soap operatic film’s true self.

The film moves so quickly that no real sense of any relationship between the old pervert and his niece is built up, yet, literally, just a couple of minutes after she arrives at his estate and tells him it is too late for a relationship, she is telling him (after a stay of a few days) that she has loved her time with him. He, of course, is in love with her, asks her to put on his wife’s wedding dress, and asks her to marry him. She refuses, says she pities him, then he drugs her (with Ramona’s help) and tries to rape her, but cannot go through with it.

Up till that point, the film more closely resembled a Dracula film rather than "serious" drama. He tells her the next morning that he took her virginity and she cannot become a nun. But, his ploy to keep her fails; even after he admits his lie, she goes to the bus station, but before she can leave, Jaime hangs himself, after writing a letter and bizarrely smirking.

He has made her partial heir to the estate, with his son, Don Jorge (Francisco Rabal), a Latin Lothario if there ever was one. He takes over the house with his girlfriend, Lucia (Victoria Zinny), but it is obvious he has the hots for Viridiana, as well as Ramona. He plans on adding electricity and modern amenities to the medieval place. The girlfriend eventually leaves, and Viridiana turns her portion of the estate into a hostel for the poor and ill, after she is mocked for doing so by the callous Mother Superior.

Of course, Jorge slowly tries to seduce both Ramona and Viridiana, but only succeeds with the maid. Then, as she and Jorge go off for a day to a lawyer’s office, the indigents take over the main house, have a feast, and then do lewd and perverse things. The most "shocking" was having the poor line up in a mock Last Supper pose as one woman flashes her gonads at them. Yet, the whole image is forced, in the extreme, and therefore not nearly as effective as a similar scene in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, where a Last Supper pose was struck, nor is it even as effective as a similar sequence in Federico Fellini’s Variety Lights (Luci Del Varietà), where indigent performers spend a night in a manse.

As said, however, unless one is a religious fanatic the shock value passes quickly, if it even registers nowadays. When a couple of the indigents fuck behind a sofa the blind poor man goes wild. Of course, Viridiana and Jorge return right then, and while most of the indigents leave, two of them attack and knock out Jorge, and tie him up. Then they grab Viridiana and try to rape her. As one of them puts her down on the bed, Jorge bribes the one with leprosy to kill the would-be rapist. He does, the police come, and order is restored.

The film ends with the home modernized, and Ramona in Jorge’s bedroom. Viridiana enters, Jorge opines that he always knew he would end up shuffling the deck with his cousin (an old and blatantly obvious slang for sex), and the three of them play cards to the rockabilly tune "Shake Your Cares Away" — a none too subtle suggestion that, after having gotten through two attempted rapes, the ex-nun is ready to become her cousin’s lover, and possibly engage in a ménage-a-trois.

This very unintriguing story arc is made worse by its execution, which suffers from anomie and banality, the use of non-professional actors, and poor plot pacing. In films by Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, ellipses are effectively used because he suffuses the viewer with pedestrian and symbolic moments of import that play off of each other, whereas Buñuel leaves gaping plot holes in his hour and a half long film that do not invite a viewer to draw obvious conclusions.

As example, what happens to make Viridiana change her mind about her uncle in a few short days, and what prompts her opening of a hostel? Since the answers are not obvious, yet have obvious bearing on major plot elements, their absence is a sign of poor writing, not narrative economy. Plus there is not a single original character in the film. Unlike, say, Maria in The Sound Of Music, Viridiana’s expulsion from the nunnery elicits a ho-hum reaction, and her character is not nearly as realistic as Julie Andrews' famed character. That’s truly something since Maria regularly breaks out into song!

The two Dons, father and son, are stereotypes of Latin lovers, but the way the poor and ill are depicted is the worst — simply abominable. Not that there are not sinners in the lower classes, but there’s not a redeemable one of them in the bunch. Even other "shock" films, like Tod Brownings Freaks (an obvious influence) or Werner Herzog’s later Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge Haben Klein Angefangen), have positive characters amongst their criminal and murderous lots.

As for the lead character? Yes, Pinal is an attractive woman, with great legs, and a hefty bosom that Rey lays his face upon when he undoes her blouse and thinks of raping her. But her character is so detached from life (she lives out masochistic crown of thorns fantasies) and the film that one would not care if she was raped, by either her uncle or the indigents. She is a failure at life, love, and any career, so when she goes to Jorge at film’s end, she is accepting her role as a servile failure. But she would be one regardless of the film’s end, for were she to go groveling back to the nunnery her end would be even more ignominious.

An even more bizarre character is Ramona, who seems to have a thing for both Dons, even though the elder one has a pedophilic fetish for her young, rope-jumping daughter. Yet she has no problem helping him drug and possibly rape Viridiana, nor lie for him. Again, were this film more parodic, it might work, but since the film is played rather straight, it makes her a monstrous, if not outright psychotic, character with no real grounding in motive.

The Criterion Collection DVD of the film is rather skimpy on extras; there's not even an audio commentary. The transfer of the film is not a good one, with several scenes where obvious scratches and damage has occurred. It is also a bit muddy, and the white subtitles are often lost in glaring whites. If a film is not even going to be dubbed, the least that can be done is to put the subtitles in color, especially on black and white films. There are brief and rather pointless interviews with lead actress Pinal and Spanish cultural critic Richard Porton, excerpts from a 1964 French TV series called Cinéastes De Notre Temps (Cineastes Of Our Times) on Buñuel, and a thirty-page insert with an essay by film critic Michael Wood, which incidentally ends with a perfect example of the criticism of intent:

But the blasphemy is not against Christ and the Father. It is against the belief in progress- or at least the conventional sense of it – whether in the form of Jorge’s plans for improving the estate or of Viridiana’s project for improving the beggars’ lives. The beggars are not evil or the dark side of virtue. They are the unruliness of life itself, a reminder that pleasure and curiosity and appetite can always turn to destruction and violence. This is not an argument against pleasure and curiosity and appetite, or an appeal for law and order. It is a picture of a society that doesn’t understand its own needs. Buñuel’s skepticism and his sense of outrage concern the smallness of our vision of progress, our narrow attempts to achieve it through rational or moralistic planning, and our anxious disregard of the disruptive forces without which no society would be human.

Note the last melodramatic proclamation. Of course, this is all what Wood believes the film intends, not what is actually onscreen, for to be so compellingly intellectually bold, as described, the film would have to be much better than the end result. What is actually on screen is a pallid imitation of religious criticism, poorly put together in a helter-skelter fashion. There is also an interview excerpt from the book Objects Of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel. There is also the original theatrical trailer, larded with hyperbolic critical praise, but the film contains no orgy scene, which the trailer boasts it does, and which it claims outdoes the orgy scene from Federico Fellini’s infinitely superior film, La Dolce Vita.

The most unusual thing about this film, however, is how few critics, at its release or now, actually understand how plainly dreadful it is, as they are so caught up in the criticism of intent. The usually stolid New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, however, was one of the few who did, writing:

The theme is that well-intended charity can often be badly misplaced by innocent, pious people. Therefore, beware of charity. That is the obvious moral that forms in this grim and tumorous tale of a beautiful young religious novice who gets into an unholy mess when she gives up her holy calling to try to atone for a wrong she has done … It is an ugly, depressing view of life. And, to be frank about it, it is a little old-fashioned, too. His format is strangely literary; his symbols are obvious and blunt, such as the revulsion of the girl toward milking or the display of a penknife built into a crucifix. And there is something just a bit corny about having his bums doing their bacchanalian dance to the thunder of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’

What was old fashioned in the early 1960s is absolutely petrified now. Unfortunately, Buñuel lacked all subtlety in his films, and had little of depth to say; and not nearly enough ability to say it well (as evidenced in the interview segments with him in Cinéastes De Notre Temps), even if he knew what he wanted to say, which amounts to a little boy sticking his tongue out at authority. His screenplay is so poorly wrought that it never once provokes one to look at it a second time.

Perhaps the only moment of any real inspiration comes in a scene where the egotistical Jorge buys a tired dog, attached by a rope to the underside of a cart as it runs along the road (earlier, his father had shown animal empathy and rescued a drowning bee). He does this so the poor animal won’t have to suffer possible strangulation if it tires and gets pulled along. Yet, when he walks away with the dog, satisfied over his good deed, another cart goes by with another little dog attached to it in the same way. It’s a highly cinematic and poetic evocation of the character’s smugness and self-satisfaction in the face of life’s ceaseless cruelty. But it’s an artistic atoll in a sea of banality, both narratively and visually.

That this film shared the 1961 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival says that even Europeans sometimes picked crap to win awards; it’s not just a Hollywood phenomenon. At least in retrospect, one might feel that they were not praising the art, but its political intent at bashing the Vatican and Franco, yet did they have to actually give it top honors?

Just a year later, Ingmar Bergman unleashed his titanic Socratic dialogue, Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna), a film that is manifold greater a work of art in every aspect than this film — technically, in terms of screenplay and characterization, as well as daring in its scathing political condemnation of organized religion. The best that Buñuel apologists can muster, by contrast, is offering bon mots like claiming that the film critiques the Roman Catholic premise that poverty is noble. Even if one grants that that might be the main thrust of the film (I do not), it does not do it nearly as well as other films that tackle the pros and cons of religion.

And technically, the cinematography is pedestrian in the extreme. There are no indelible images, although Buñuel tries to make the Last Supper bit impress. Yet, it is so contrived, out of nowhere – to the point where Buñuel had to add in other extras, for he lacked the requisite number of indigents – that it reminds one of an impudent thumbing his nose at authority, just to do so, for thumbing his nose is his only reason for the film.

As for the scoring, while the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel’s Messiah is always great to hear, it is out of place in all the instances it is deployed. Only the ending rockabilly tune shows any bit of inspiration. That and the scene with the leashed dog are all this film can claim in a truly artistic vein, but they constitute perhaps four of the film’s ninety minutes. The other 86 minutes are a chore.

Yes, Buñuel is not as pretentious and lacking in filmic basics as that other Surreal fraud, Jean Cocteau; so what? That doesn’t make Buñuel a master; not even close, despite all the praise tossed his way. Viridiana fails not for a huge error or two, but for an unending string of little wrong and inane things, such as ridiculous symbolism – Viridiana sleepwalks and tosses ashes into Jaime’s bed – and a film that moves far too quickly and gives no real insight into anything, especially its characters. For ellipses to work, they must be deployed within well-defined characterization, so that viewers can reasonably extrapolate the elided events. Without that, the missing elements shortchange both the tale and the characters.

Furthermore, the film’s criticism of Roman Catholicism is absolutely depthless; it has been done before and since, and done better. There is no intellectual rigor, nor a hint of poesy. The political intent overwhelms the minuscule art. And without real characters, who gives a damn what is intended? The exercise is rendered pointless by its own incompetence, something that haunts most of the Buñuel canon, which may explain why Viridiana – film and character – have such vacancies in their gazes.

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About Dan Schneider

  • http://www.additiverich.com/knife/ Joey

    Crikey, it sounds like the reviewer has an axe to grind with Buñuel and with surrealism. This review reads like one man’s attack on a form he neither likes nor understands.

    The overuse of emotive adjectives such as “puerile”, “pretentious”, “abysmal” and “excruciatingly” point to this being a treatise against the filmmaker instead of an honest appraisal of the film.

    The reviewer’s misunderstanding of the movie is apparent throughout. For instance, nowhere does he indicate any realisation that the movie is supposed to be funny. This even while he is describing some of the movie’s funnier scenes, which he seems to think are failed dramatic moments!

    Then there is the constant harping on the weakness of the “plot” and the unrealism of the “characters” – complete irrelevances in a surrealist film. One might as well complain of the lack of sword-fighting skeletons in Italian realist film.

    All in all, a misguided review.

  • http://www.cosmoetica.com Dan Schneider

    Like has nothing to do with criticism, and Surrealism is not difficult to understand, but bad art, by whatever -ism it’s labeled, is still bad art. Being part of a school does not insulate one from the objective merits of success or not.

    ‘The overuse of emotive adjectives such as “puerile”, “pretentious”, “abysmal” and “excruciatingly” point to this being a treatise against the filmmaker instead of an honest appraisal of the film.’

    Given the substance of the film, they were tame adjectives, and used sparingly. Bunuel was nothing if self-indulgent and obvious.

    ‘nowhere does he indicate any realisation that the movie is supposed to be funny.’

    The key word is supposed, which, you unwittingly underscore in support of my point.

    ‘Then there is the constant harping on the weakness of the “plot” and the unrealism of the “characters”‘

    Surrealism, or any other school, does not abnegate the basics of storytelling, although to weak minds, such never occurs, -ismically or not.

  • Davidy323

    Funny you would note “Personal attacks are NOT allowed” yet Dan clearly does so in his reply to the above commentator. I know this review is old but I just watched Viridiana today and did a Google search for reviews. This review not only dissects Bunuels film but manages to throw a cheap potshot at Cocteau. Not necessary in my opinion to make a point for this review. You already have your big words assembled. Why bother Cocteau?