For some reason lately I have been on a Bunuel kick. Here is another film that is very important in his filmography. After years of making pictures in Mexico, working for the Hollywood system making American releases into Spanish releases, and generally being misused by the film world, he returns to Spain to make his comeback. Viridiana represents the first film of a string of films that established him as an important auteur. Because of this film, he would have enough cache to make his two most famous films, Belle De Jour and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois. Unlike L’Age D’Or where his vision was there but not fully developed, this film represents Bunuel exploring his favorite themes with an eye of a professional. His fetishistic tendencies, his digs at organized religion (especially Christianity) and his subversion of regular relationship roles all are present here.
Before she becomes a nun, Viridiana is encouraged to visit her old and rich uncle one last time. He has provided her dowry to the convent and she performs this visit as a way to thank him. However when she comes, the uncle realizes that she looks exactly like his wife who has died. He begs her to put on his wife’s wedding clothes and then proposes. Shocked by his aggressiveness, she refuses only to drink drugged coffee that he has given her. He wants her to stay with him and the only way he can do it is by taking her virginity. Yet he lacks the ability to go through with it. Instead he decides to commit suicide and leaves his farm and fortune to his estranged son and her. The son comes to live in the mansion and Viridiana confines herself to a lesser building. Deciding not to return to the convent, she gathers the towns beggars (they range from drunks to blind people to lepers to prostitutes) and gives them a place to live and eat. These beggars treat her as if she is Mary but when she is gone they resort to their old ways. The film culminates in a massive feast that beggars take part in when the masters are away. They break into the mansion, prepare a feast and destroy the dining room.
Although there are several images that seem surreal in nature, the film feels very realistic. Bunuel once said that in order to really point out the flaws of society you have to make your picture as plausible and as absurd as possible. (I am paraphrasing here. I don’t remember the exact quote but it can be found in the documentary supplement in the Criterion release of this film) Each character is neither wholly evil nor wholly good. The uncle who attempts to rape Viridiana is seen more as lonely and sad than a sadistic male. Each beggar that destroys the dining room and takes advantage of Viridiana’s charity are just acting the way they are taught by society to act. For instance giving an alcoholic a place to live and a steady meal does not necessarily meant that he will give up drinking. Drinking is what he or she knows. It is a comfort to them. Viridiana is also seen as too dogmatic in her views of Christianity at the same time she is seen as giving and charitable. This is more akin to what happens in real life than in films. Bunuel does not give anyone a happy ending or an easy plot wrap up. That is just not how it is.