Viridiana - Misery of The Human Condition

                          A man sees a poor, tired dog tied up and forced to trot behind a peasant’s horse-drawn carriage. He attempts to convince the peasant to put the dog in the empty carriage, but he is rebuffed with “Only people ride in the carriage.” To save the exhausted dog, the man buys him from the peasant, and as he walks off, the camera pans around to find another carriage riding by the opposite direction with an equally exhausted dog tethered to the back. In that single blackly comic, yet profoundly sad scene, which really has nothing to do with the story, Luis Buñuel movingly and efficiently summarizes his view of the cycle of human cruelty and the near impossibility of doing anything about it. 

                        This brilliant sequence takes place in one of the controversial movies of Bunuel, Viridiana. Director Luis Bunuel returned to Spain for the first time since 1938 to make this film. Spain’s fascist dictator General Francisco Franco invited him to return and make a film on his own terms. But, upon its release the film was not only banned in Spain (a ban that lasted till the '70s after the fall of Franco's regime) but it was also fully denounced by the Vatican for being inappropriate and blatantly anti-Catholic. Not surprisingly, Viridiana went on to win the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

                     In Viridiana, an outraged Buñuel doesn't so much attack a saint's good intentions as much as her naivete and unwillingness to realize that the world is incapable of appreciating them.

         Just before taking her vows, pious Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is summoned to the home of her wealthy uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey). Viridiana doesn't know him well and begs her mother superior to allow her to stay at the convert, but is reminded that her ailing uncle has been her benefactor and that this will be the last opportunity to visit him. She learns not only that Don Jaime's wife died on their wedding night, but, weirdly enough, she reminds him of her. 

              Don Jaime pesters Viridiana to stay at his estate, forces her to dress in his deceased wife's wedding dress, drugs her with the help of his loyal maid, Ramona and attempts to rape her before he's wracked with shame and backs away. His shame ultimately sends the lust-crazed Don Jaime up a tree and down a rope, but it also sends Viridiana into a spin of guilt.

             She decides to remain at the estate, to take in the village poor and tend to their comforts. Meanwhile, Don Jamie's illegitimate son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal) shows up, having inherited the property. Despite all her best intentions, the rowdy vagabonds resist her influences, taking food and shelter, but refusing to “improve” themselves through work and commitment.

                 It's hard to describe the genius of Bunuel in writing. He has a distinctive style, unlike any other filmmaker. His images are always dreamlike, and they flow with a dream logic, abandoning a story line at any moment for a new one, like the dog sequence. Buñuel ably calibrates his performances, between light and dark, so that we may swing from sympathy to revulsion even in a single scene. Buñuel's script, co-written with Julio Alejandro, masterfully wraps up the fate of a woman whose trust has been violated time and again.

                 Buñuel mistrusted social institutions, but who among us doesn't? Buñuel isn't interested in social institutions themselves, but in those human beings corralled by such institutions into large, unruly groups, and how quickly their conduct devolves into spasms of primal behavior. So does Buñuel despise human beings? The wisdom and humor at play in Viridiana, indicates otherwise. In spite of all their despicable yearnings, his characters all aspire to high ideals--whether they dwell in the street or in the manor.

                Most read the film as essentially making fun of Viridiana’s efforts, noting that she has a naive view of the world that is bound to be crushed. In a sense this is true, but the film is also just as ruthless in its mockery of the beggars, a group that in most other films would be viewed as downtrodden victims of society. Viridiana isn't attacking a  religious institution but its failure to truly and imaginatively connect with the people it seeks to help. 

               Viridiana is quintessential Buñuel: a perfect entryway to his work,  and a example of his contradictory universe of the beautiful and the grotesque.


Viridiana - Imdb 


Haricharan Pudipeddi said...

wowww. I'm glad you reviewed a film that most of us would've never heard of. I'm glad I didnt miss this film :) Classics such as these should be given due credit. Continue your good work.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Bravo... what a fantastic review!!! Bunuel was a master moviemaker besides being a pioneer surrealist. When people talk about Bunuel's oeuvre they often forget about his non-surrealistic masterpieces like Viridiana, Diary of a Chamber, etc. The scene that you described about the dog being cruelly dragged by the cart indeed reflects the hapless state of the world that we have built for ourselves.

Arun Kumar said...

@Haricharan, Thanks for the comment. Yeah, a ardent movie fan should never miss classics like these.

Hi, Murtaza, Thanks for your appreciation.