Luis Bunuel (1963)
Bunuel made this film in 1963, when Spain was still in the tight double-handed grip of Franco and a very right wing Catholic Church. It was almost immediately banned. Shocking enough to watch a nun taking off her stockings, but things get rapidly worse, culminating in a grotesque parody of Leonardo’s Last Supper… watching it today, we shall never totally feel the impact it had in that time and that place, but it is still a very powerful film, with devastating and relevant things to say about fallible humanity.
Viridiana is a beautiful, pious nun who is called away from here convent for a visit to her wealthy land-owning uncle (Fernando Rey). He is doting, she is dutiful, and when he asks if she will do him the favour of dressing in his dead wife’s bridal gown, (she died on the wedding night…) because she resembles her so much, what can she do but comply. He drugs her drink, and when she wakes up, tells her he has raped her while she slept. After he later kills himself, using a child’s skipping rope, Viridiana inherits the house. Such is her purity and unworldliness that she gathers together a group of beggars and houses them there. Later in the absence of the family the beggars hold a banquet there that begins like an innocent celebration but soons descends into savagery, violence, and rape.
So what does it all mean? Like Bunuel’s best films it is constantly wrong-footing and undermining the viewer. It’s fine for a nun to be beautiful, but could the audience then accept her sexuality? The beggars are quaint and deserving characters to begin with, the banquet scene begins as a joyful celebration of life, a beautifully filmed sequence of movement and happiness, culminating in both the Last Supper tableau, which we find amusing and clever, and then come the scenes of cruelty and violence, which wipe the smiles off out faces. Humanity is corrupt and irredeemable, or perhaps it is that what we call ‘humanity’ does not exist all, once imposed constraints have gone, and that morality is never anything but a thin veneer.
Another chilling moment comes when a well-meaning man unleashes a dog from a rope that is tying it to the underside of a cart and forcing it to trot along at the cart’s pace – immediately afterwards along comes another cart with a dog similarly attached… individual acts of kindness are useless, and make no difference to the world. Even here the feeling of despair can’t help but be laced with amusement, because the dog looks almost contented with its lot – are people happy without freedom after all, then?
As a young man Bunuel studied insects, and his view of humanity has always had a backwards look towards that fascinating, amoral universe – the beautiful and ugly, living, mating, destroying each other and dying, unstoppable and inscrutable. It’s a bleak world view. And so one comes away with a confused mixture of chilly nihilism and yet still a sort of delight in humour and appetite for life – the ‘sweet subversion’ which Bunuel was soon to develop in greater, funnier and harsher films over the years to come.
Baltic Arts Centre, Newcastle, March 2005