Viridiana (Criterion Collection) Review

Noel Megahey reviews the Criterion Collection edition of Luis Buñuel’s once controversial film, lauded at Cannes, condemned by the Vatican and banned by an outraged Franco.

Having been absent from Spain from the time of the Civil War, working in Hollywood and then making films in Mexico, Luis Buñuel returned to his native Spain in 1961, where his controversial films L’Âge d’Or (1930) and Las Hurdes (1933) were still banned, to make another film even while the dictator Franco remained in power. Rather than this being a weakening of his position as a left-wing opponent to the Fascist regime as some initially thought, Viridiana, despite its success in winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, would actually be considered just as controversial and blasphemous, causing such a stir in the Vatican that the Spanish dictator would order the sacking of those responsible for entering the film as the official Spanish entry at Cannes, and even demand that the film be completely destroyed.

The story of a nun who resists the lecherous advances of her uncle, renouncing her taking of the vows only after his death to look after his estate and give it over to the looking after of homeless beggars, Viridiana must have looked good on paper, because that is the only way you could imagine this ferocious attack on conservative Spanish and Catholic values getting past the censor. And indeed, early on the film does seem to support those traditional values, but subtly (and not so subtly) gradually undermining them as the film progresses until the whole thing collapses in the most shocking way imaginable.

A novice nun, Sister Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) reluctant to leave the convent for the temptations and evil of the outside world, nevertheless agrees to spend a few days on the estate of her uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), since he cannot be present himself at her taking of her vows. Her fears seem to be founded and small details on her uncle’s estate trouble her – a mischievous child, an uncle with an illegitimate son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal) – even the udders on a cow seem to be sexually suggestive to her. Troubled by what she sees, Viridiana sleeps with her cross and a crown of thorns by her bed, but sleepwalks in the night and pours ashes onto her uncle’s bed. It seems that Viridiana is right to be suspicious of her uncle, witnessing and being forced to participate in a bizarre fetishistic ceremony involving his wife’s wedding dress, the one she wore when she died on their wedding night. More than that, he wants Viridiana, who resembles the dead woman, to take her place as his wife and drugs her with the intention of raping her.

It’s certainly delightful to witness the more controversial elements of Viridiana’s attacks on the church and bourgeois morality, as they are undertaken with a childish delight at causing offence – whether it is through the imagery of crosses that hide knives, through the famous scene of the beggars in the pose of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the suggestive ménage-a-trois card game at the end of the film or one of the many other not-so-subtle attacks on Catholicism. But while they amuse and amaze at their audacity for the time the film was made, they would hardly offend too many people now. In fact, though it initially sounds ridiculous, I actually believe that there is some truth in the comment made by a Jesuit priest that can be found in the Cinéastes de Notre Temps extra feature on this DVD edition. The priest (and film critic), who teaches at the very same school where Buñuel was educated, observes that, despite Buñuel’s claim to be an atheist, there is evidence of a deeply moral and religious conviction behind all the bluster and anticlerical sentiments in his films. Buñuel’s famous pronouncement of “Thank God I’m an atheist” in this context could be seen as more than just a clever aphorism, and perhaps reveals even more than most believe. It’s this intriguing contradiction or ambiguity in Buñuel’s position that gives rise to the Viridiana’s more intriguing elements.

While such attacks on the church may no longer have the power to shock that they once did, Viridiana still has not lost any of its power, since the real strength of the film is in Buñuel’s depiction of human nature. That view is a deeply cynical one – or perhaps just a more realistic one than had been previously seen on movie screens up to that point – and he depicts it in all its twisted cruelty, perversity and contradictions, tapping uneasily into dark desires and normally unspoken impulses, much of it inspired by his own dreams and subconscious. Buñuel’s vision of mankind still stands up against even the bleakness of Harold Pinter, the darkest Hitchcock of Vertigo and even matches the weirdness and grotesquery of David Lynch. Everyone here is psychologically imbalanced, has neuroses and complexes and a dark, hidden nature. Even the housekeeper’s child has disturbing and suggestive nightmares of a huge black bull charging into her room. Throughout, Buñuel shows how people’s good intentions can be misguided, motivated by less noble impulses such as guilt (a very Catholic notion) or simply taken advantage of. Jorge’s pointless rescue of a single dog tied to a cart is one such example, but there are signs everywhere of goodness being perverted. Don Jaime claims that he was once a good man, a philanthropist who found that the world didn’t welcome or appreciate honesty and candour. His desire to marry Viridiana is also born out of a twisted perversion but genuine love for his dead wife. It’s evident also in the frankly masochistic nature of Viridiana’s religious paraphernalia and a deeply pious nature that only opens her up to seeing threats of temptation and evil in everything around her. Her idealistic good intentions for helping out homeless beggars also turns out to be misguided and taken advantage of by the realities of human nature, and by the end of the film, her submission to the earthy Jorge is the final admission of the failure of her religious ideals.

Most obviously, this subversion of the darker side – or should I just say human side – that lies below the surface of good acts and intentions is made evident in the scene of the beggars banquet itself, which, contrary to thoughts of blasphemy, is actually much less cynical than it appears and, as the Jesuit priest suggests, perhaps shows Buñuel’s humanistic side. By placing the beggars in a representation of the apostles, like Caravaggio’s use of prostitutes and beggars in his religious paintings, he robs the scene of its heavenly religious aura and reminds us of the human qualities that lie behind them. Is it blasphemous? Hardly. Iconoclastic, certainly – Buñuel seeking to offend and challenge people’s comfortable illusions and unthinking religious beliefs, exposing the hypocrisy that lies beneath them. These are real people, with real flaws and real problems and Buñuel uses real beggars rather than actors and makes us confront them. Does their presence on the screen and their behaviour offend us? How much are we willing to forgive their behaviour, their ugliness, their coarseness and their poverty? Are they also not just as welcome at God’s table? Well, since the film was promptly judged immoral and banned by the Vatican, evidently not. Buñuel could surely have expected nothing less.

DVDViridiana is released in the US as part of the Criterion Collection. The DVD is encoded for Region 1 and is in NTSC format.

VideoCriterion’s booklet provides some information on the transfer, but it’s generic and not as helpful as the information the Masters of Cinema releases provide on their restorations. We don’t know the state of the original materials or the negatives, except through some passing information Silvia Pinal provides in the extra features. Nevertheless, the print here is in excellent condition, with only a few marks and tramline scratches. Most are noticeable in the opening shots of the film, though there is one particularly degraded section later on, during Viridiana’s meeting with Don Jaime, which only lasts about 30 seconds. There is some light flicker and general unsteadiness throughout, but just as much of this appears to be through camera movements in less than smooth tracking. There is little else that causes any concern. The transfer for the most part is perfectly clear and sharp, and is beautifully balanced with solid blacks and wonderful textures in a full range of greyscale tones. It’s possibly slightly on the dark side, which tends to lose some of the finer detail in the blacks.

AudioThe soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and is relatively strong, but quite crackly. Dialogue is perfectly audible, but has a rough edge even with normal speaking voices, and sounds quite distorted in louder passages. Again, there is no information from Criterion on the condition of the original elements, or how they were restored.

SubtitlesEnglish subtitles are provided in a clear white font, and translate the film well.

ExtrasSilvia Pinal (14:25)Filmed in January 2006 (and delaying the release of this DVD slightly), Silvia Pinal provides an interesting account of how she met Buñuel and came to work on the film, with anecdotes about on-set events. She talks about how the film was received and banned, the attempt to destroy all copies of it and how it was preserved.

Cinéastes de Notre Temps (37:21)This is an edited version of a 1964 episode of the French film enthusiasts series, devoted to Luis Buñuel. Based around a frank and open interview with Buñuel that shows his full character, the invaluable documentary looks at his early films, his work in Hollywood and Mexico, and tries to pin down his influences and themes.

Richard Porton (12:38)The Cinéaste editor looks at Buñuel’s style in Viridiana, and its Spanish context. This is of a reasonable enough length to put forward some ideas and provide some background on the filmmaker and his themes, without being overly speculative or interpretative.

The booklet that comes with the set is up to the usual Criterion standard, containing an essay by film historian Michael Wood, that is reasonably informative, though over-descriptive in relating the plot, and an excellent archive interview with Buñuel.

Comparison to French Ciné-club Region 0It’s interesting to compare the Criterion release with the French edition of Viridiana. The Ciné-club edition (reviewed for DVD Times here by Michael Brooke) is presented on a single-layer disc, with the original Spanish soundtrack, but only with optional French subtitles. The image is quite pleasing throughout, clear and mainly free of marks, but is slightly brightened or contrast-boosted, and has none of the range of tones or detail that can be found on the Criterion edition. Compression artefacts are quite evident if the image is examined closely enough. The occasional shakiness in the image can also be seen here, which would tend to confirm that they are caused by camera movements rather than being a flaw of the transfer. Interestingly however, the French edition doesn’t have any of the tramline scratches that are evident on the title screens and convent scenes and has no degradation of the image that can be seen in the short 30-second scene on the Criterion. The first screen-capture comparison below shows that one particular problem scene on the Criterion. The Criterion is above, the Ciné-club below. The second screen-capture is more typical of the differences between the two editions, the Criterion (first) showing far superior tones, detail and clarity than the Ciné-club edition (below), with slightly more information at the top of the screen.

The French Ciné-club edition has slightly clearer sound, with only a few pops and crackles, and some sibilance rather than distortion – but it’s not a significant difference by any means. Extras on the French edition consist of only an essay on the film and a filmography of the director.

OverallViridiana is quintessential Buñuel, and has everything you could expect from this controversial, provocative and challenging director – one of the true early innovators of the filmmaking medium who continued throughout his career to stretch the boundaries of what cinema could show, as well as challenging people’s values and ideals. Banned in Spain until 1977, the supposedly blasphemous elements are still controversial and unsettling, not so much for their attack on religion, but for their probing into the complex nature of the motivations that drive human behaviour. Criterion present the film very well indeed, with a lovely anamorphic transfer and some informative features that complement the film well and are more thought-provoking than their usual exhaustive analytical academicism.


Updated: Jun 19, 2006

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