By John A. Riley
Viridiana tells the story of a young novice who, shortly before taking her vows, goes to stay with her uncle, Don Jaime on his sprawling estate. Sexually obsessed with her, Don Jaime drugs her but backs out of raping her at the last minute. Believing herself to be raped, she feels unable to take her vows, and Don Jaime, wracked with guilt, hangs himself. Viridiana then plans to turn the estate into a mission for local beggars, while Don Jaime’s estranged son returns with more secular plans. The two clash, and finally the beggars themselves break into the house and an orgy of gluttony and violence ensues.
Buñuel’s capitalisation on the Franco regime’s vanity to return and make a supposedly pious film that ultimately outraged General Franco and the Pope, and went on to win the Palme D’Or, is a legendary fireside tale of postwar European film. But how does Viridiana stand up when viewed today? Although still seen by many as a masterful satire, it’s hard to take completely seriously a film that Buñuel confesses in his autobiography derived from a sexual fantasy in which he drugged and raped the Queen of Spain, and in which most of the scorn seems to be poured onto a beautiful young woman.
However, as always with Buñuel, there is more to it than this, not least the calm pace, the wry smile and the slow build-up of details and atmosphere. If the clarity of theme has been clouded by Buñuel’s tiresome sexism and by the fading cultural memories of Francoist era Spain (and I suspect the film raises hearty belly laughs from those who still recall the era well) then there are still crystal-clear cinematic images that stay in the memory for years after viewing; Viridiana eerily sleepwalking, burning some of her possessions in the fireplace and then sprinkling the ashes in Don Jaime’ bed; her insistence on leading the beggars in prayer while all around them construction workers are busily and loudly modernising the estate; and the final orgy, in which the beggars pose for a photograph that suddenly, mockingly resembles Leonardo’s Last Supper.
In the current age of widespread European austerity, Buñuel’s attack on charity can seem misanthropic, maybe because he shows the beggars as grotesques who respond to assistance and compassion with scattergun truculence. It may be that Buñuel’s intention was to provoke his audience, or to play on the fears of a bourgeoise arthouse audience. Or perhaps it is ’s refusal to redistribute the wealth of Don Jaime’s opulent estate that causes the eruption of violence. Once the beggars have been removed from the grounds, Viridiana is a broken woman, and the film concludes (shockingly at the time) with the suggestion that she is joining a ménage a trois with Don Jaime’s son and another woman. As an inane pop song plays on the stereo, we get the feeling of an eerie foreshadowing the failure of the sixties generation to “immanentise the eschaton”, instead collapsing into resigned introspection and hedonism.