As a character in a John Ford film released only a few months after Viridiana wisely recommended, "when the facts don't fit the legend, print the legend." So let's kick off with the legend.
Though a native of Spain, Luis Buñuel spent most of the period from the late 1930s to the early 1960s in self-imposed exile in the USA and Mexico, where he built up a reputation as one of the Spanish-speaking cinema's greatest talents. Hearing of this, Spain's Fascist dictator General Franco invited Buñuel back to make a film in his native country for the first time in thirty years...
...and Buñuel, in a masterly demonstration of how to bite the hand that feeds you clean off, used this largesse to make a film so calculatedly offensive to right-wing Catholic sensibilities that Franco immediately banned it when he saw it and ordered the negative to be seized. Fortunately, it was smuggled out of the country and a print was screened at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, where it promptly won the Palme d'Or - setting in train the extraordinary flowering of Buñuel's late career.
Just how much of the above is true is a matter for speculation: Buñuel denied most of it and even claimed that Franco liked the film, though wouldn't intervene when his censors took against it. But it's hard to believe that Buñuel didn't know exactly what he was doing - not least given the evidence of Viridiana itself. Working with the biggest budget that he'd enjoyed up to then, it's as clear-eyed and lucid as any of his other films, with a near-total absence of stylistic flashiness. There's plenty of symbolism if you like that sort of thing, but the film never runs the risk of slipping into arty pretension: the story and subject-matter are too strong.
Viridiana (Silvia Pinal, foreshadowing the icy blonde characters Catherine Deneuve would play in Belle de Jour and Tristana) is on the verge of becoming a nun, but before she takes her final vows she is summoned to visit her uncle, the middle-aged Don Jaime (the great Fernando Rey).
She's initially worried about the corruption of his wealth, but it's unsurprisingly (to all except her) the corruption of the flesh he's most interested in, largely thanks to Viridiana's startling resemblance to his late wife. After a series of fetishistic games lead to a disastrous seduction attempt, Don Jaime hangs himself and leaves Viridiana his estate.
Vowing to use her new-found money for good causes, Viridiana takes in a group of beggars, but as they take over her house and her life she quickly comes to realise the hard way just how limited and hopelessly idealistic her vision of the world is, and that the cynical rationalism of her cousin Jorge, Don Jaime's worldly son, though less godly, offers far more practical benefits (the closing card game, underscored by a wonderfully trashy and embarrassingly catchy early Sixties pop song in English - as distinct from the Handel and Mozart Viridiana prefers - is a miniature classic of pointed observation in its own right).
It's easy to see why many Catholic groups found Viridiana so offensive (it was condemned by the Vatican, who took particular exception to the beggars' re-enactment of the Last Supper), but Buñuel's anticlericalism - in this film above all - stems from a desire to be painfully honest. If the Church is demonstrably failing its people by substituting practical action for meaningless piety, why stay silent?
The performances are beyond praise, from established actors Silvia Pinal, Francisco Rabal and Fernando Rey (in the first of four marvellous characterisations he would create for Buñuel), right down to the beggars, some of whom were genuine (and apparently their mutual animosity was equally unfaked). Both Viridiana and Don Jaime could easily have been two-dimensional caricatures - we've seen plenty of idealistic, virginal nuns and lecherous uncles in other films - but Buñuel, Rey and Pinal add untold layers of ambiguity and complexity: Don Jaime's unhealthy interest in his niece is counterbalanced with and to a certain extent justified by his grief at losing his wife on her wedding night, a void in his life that he's never been able to fill.
It's often underrated compared with the more high-profile French-made masterpieces that Buñuel would make over the next decade and a half, but two viewings over the last few months have convinced me that it's one of his very best films - and considering Buñuel's unquestioned importance in cinema history that's no small claim, or indeed achievement.
As ever in these situations, I'll get the bad news out of the way at the start, assuming you haven't already spotted it in the infobar at the side: this DVD doesn't have an English language option in any shape or form, offering only the original Spanish soundtrack with optional French subtitles. Since this is a French DVD, one can't complain too much - though it does seem odd that they've specifically released it as a Region 0 disc without catering for a wider market.
That's the only drawback, though - everything else about this DVD turned out to be way ahead of expectations. Although at the time of writing (April 2001) there are only two Buñuel DVDs available, it's immensely gratifying that the quality threshold is so high. Criterion's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was a revelation even to people who thought they knew the film backwards, and if this DVD never quite scales the same heights, it's still a remarkably good transfer.
For starters, it's anamorphic, while still respecting the original 1.66:1 ratio (the picture is slightly windowboxed at the sides). Secondly, the print is in superb condition - a tiny number of minor spots and scratches, which are doubtless age-related, but absolutely nothing obtrusive or distracting. Thirdly, the transfer is excellent, with digital artefacting kept to a minimum.
I do have some minor quibbles: the print is a little contrasty for my taste (though despite this, shadow detail still manages to come across reasonably well) and it lacks the lustre of the Criterion print - but it's still by far the best print I've ever seen of Viridiana, putting both my old VHS copy and indeed the 35mm version I saw a few months ago to shame.
The sound is less spectacular, but that's unsurprising given its age and the mono source materials. The box claims that it's stereo, but you'd never know it to listen to it - but I don't have any serious complaints: it sounds exactly like what I've heard in the past, and any drawbacks (a relatively narrow dynamic range, for instance) are almost certainly down to the original materials. There are just eight chapter stops, which is a bit on the skimpy side, though they've otherwise been chosen well. Note that the running time is given as 91 minutes on the box and various French websites - in actual fact, it's just 87 minutes, but that's explained by the PAL speedup.
Extras are minimal - a text-only essay on the film and its background, which scrolls up the screen when selected, and a complete Buñuel filmography. Both the above are, of course, in French.
All in all, though, I was delighted with this DVD - if it had English subtitles, it would be more than a match for Criterion's Buñuel efforts, and if the language barrier isn't a problem you can rest assured that you're getting about as good a transfer of Buñuel's masterpiece as you're ever likely to. With more Buñuel titles on the way later this year - some of them on UK labels - the first batch of releases have set a formidably high standard: let's hope their successors continue to do the films justice.