Dir. by Luis Bunuel - 1 hr. 30 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I'd heard of Luis Bunuel before, but had never watched anything that he'd done, so I decided to fix that last night. I fired up my Roku, did a quick search, and settled on "Viridiana," partially because it was a fairly short film. It also helped that it was a Criterion Collection pick. I guess the quickest way to put it is that this was a messed-up film, which isn't exactly a condemnation. But definitely messed-up.
Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) has just finished her training to join a convent and become a nun, but before she takes her vows, she's pressured into honoring her uncle's request for a visit, seeing as how he's bankrolled her education. Upon her arrival her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), immediately notes how Viridiana looks exactly like his late wife, which is a little awkward. Then things get really awkward; Don Jaime asks for one favor of Viridiana. So she dresses up in Don Jaime's late wife's wedding dress, at which point he asks her to marry him and never leave. Understandably freaked out, she resists, but is drugged by one of the servants, Ramona (Margarita Lozano), and is hauled up to her bed and pawed a bit. From there, things (incredibly) get worse.
"Viridiana" is a very solid film that flows well. To director Bunuel's credit, there aren't really any overwrought scenes of Viridiana's suffering and mental anguish. To be sure, she does not hold up well under the pressures that she endures, but things keep happening without any "woe is me" breaks in the plot to hammer home her victimhood. In fact, a lot of things that occur within this film are unspoken or implied, and there are big plot points that hang upon the uncertainty of what exactly has happened between the lines. That, combined with the straight-forward visual approach combines for a film that hasn't aged poorly at all, and who's plot is probably as potent today as it was upon this film's release.
Having said that, this is a movie that pushes boundaries. If you make a film that includes at least two attempted rapes of a nun-in-training, it's clear that Bunuel doesn't care about pissing people off. That's not even mentioning the pervasive incest aspects of the story, nor the class dynamics that largely define the second half of the movie, which I feel has enough depth to sustain a short book on that subject alone. Viridiana has a romantic notion of helping the destitute, but this backfires spectacularly on her. Really, no one comes off as heroic here; Viridiana is kind of clueless and arrogant and ignorant of how her looks might affect those around her, her family members are lecherous, and the legion of paupers that she tries to help seem completely unable to avoid self-destruction (and destroying things in general), illustrating the lie that there is a nobility in destitution (at least in the confines of this story). The late-film dinner party is spectacular to this point. Everyone ends up giving in to debauchery, whether enthusiastically or just keeping up with their peers, until things go too far, and then they go even further.
There are plenty of films where there's not that much to write about - they're just pieces of flashy entertainment without a ton of substance. There's value in that, too. But even a day later, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about "Viridiana," which equals a success in my book. This isn't an easy piece of work to digest, although it's not very difficult to watch. It's a short, smoothly-paced and beautifully executed film, but even better, it provokes a reaction, and a complex one at that. There are plenty of angles to examine "Viridiana" from, at least half of which would provoke readers even with a second-hand examination of this material. I don't really know if this is an ideal introduction to Bunuel's work, but in the sense that I'm excited to see more of his work, I'd count it as good enough.
4 / 5 - Streaming