Return of the Prodigal Son
Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel was born in Calanda of Spain at the turn of the 20th century. He was in exile to America since 1938, then later to Mexico in 1946, due to the Spanish Civil War and the rising power of Francisco Franco. Mostly remembered as the co-creator of the surrealistic pioneering films UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929) and L’AGE D’OR (1930) in France with Salvador Dali, his Mexico period works were largely overlooked at that time, yet still quintessential. It was not until 1960 that Buñuel got the chance to be back to Spain and made his first feature film in his native land (though he had made a short documentary, LAND WITHOUT BREAD in 1933, that was banned by the Spanish government), perhaps due to his recent success in NAZARIN (1959) and THE YOUNG ONE (1960). Miraculously, or as Buñuel’s sly deception planned, the screenplay was passed by Franco’s regime, and the result was the most scandalous artistic triumph ever, namely VIRIDIANA, that put him back to the international spotlight.
Buñuel was no stranger to scandal, censorship and repression to his works and his own. L’AGE D’OR was attacked (ink being thrown to the screen, viewers were assaulted) when it was screened in France, VIRIDIANA also faced similar challenges. Although it was firstly screened in the 1961 Cannes Film Festival and won the prestigious Palm d’Or, soon afterwards the film was banned and “erased” by the government of Francisco Franco, and condemned by the Vatican as being blasphemous. In my opinion, the results are “understandable”, and probably Buñuel expected no less than that, he may even be disappointed if they did not react in that way. VIRIDIANA was a sardonic and satirical provocation that was meant to be reacted, to be blasted and cursed while being praised and admired. It was a schizophrenic depiction of the world and people, with virtuous and righteous, evil and corruption alternatively, and more often simultaneously.
Take the most iconic moment in the entire film as the example, the reconstruction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper by replacing Jesus and the twelve disciples with beggars, connected the religion (specifically Catholicism) and spirituality to a undermining vileness and unholiness that are more grounded and direct. The effect is to provoke the understanding of human instinct, from the temperament to sexual desire previously restrained, not by God, but by hypocrisy and conceit. Remember, it is a story that was told by a man who still believed baby was came from Paris at the age of twelve. But can we go all the way to say that religion and faith should be disregarded? Or was Luis Buñuel an atheist? No I don’t think so. In NAZARIN, VIRIDIANA and later the SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965), Buñuel fixated on characters with faithful devotion to religion and God, who gradually have doubts and skepticism after arduous moments. The characters epitomised the failure of blindly indoctrination upon confrontation of the “real” world, yet the underlining love and faith were never dismissed. There was no classical triumphant moment but depressing human portrait that was bluntly truthful, if opening your eyes to the deprived world would steal your faith, you are simply blinded for too long.
When the prodigal son was granted with the chance to return and make the film in Spain, Buñuel did not intend to please the government, he “respectfully” continued to be himself and irrevocably branded his signature in VIRIDIANA, which came from two inspirations he had. Firstly the portrait of Santa Viridiana in the Museum of Mexico City that shows her with cross, crown of thorns and nails, very much inspired the early scene when Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), a nun soon to take the vow in the convent, visited his financial-supporting uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) and spent the first night in his mansion, showing all three symbolic objects while kneeling and praying. The inspirations from religion-related paintings are numerous in VIRIDIANA. Besides the aforementioned Last Supper, The Angelus by Jean-Francois Millet also evoked heavily in the film. The painting itself showed a woman and a man reciting the Angelus, a prayer which commemorates the annunciation made to Virgin Mary by the archangel. The scene was later recreated with Viridiana and a band of beggars that she gathered and sheltered in the mansion Don Jaime offered her. The praying scenes were intercut with the demolish of the mansion as Don Jorge (Francisco Rabal), Don Jaime illegitimate son, planned a reconstruction after his father death.
The second inspiration came from Buñuel’s old erotic fantasy about making love to the queen of Spain when she was drugged. Undoubtedly, Buñuel projected his alter ego into Don Jaime, who was in continual battle between the moral decency and the abominable desire towards his own niece whom appearance resembled his dead wife. Buñuel’s attentiveness towards fetishism, including necrophilism (parallel to Hitchcock’s VERTIGO), transvestism (Hitchcock’s PSYCHO), and most explicitly foot fetishism and machismo which manifested previously as a Catholic ritual feet-washing ceremony in EL (1953) and the dressed up dolls that played as victim in THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARACHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ (1955), nonetheless enriched the allegorical symbolism. Don Jaime would put on her dead wife’s high-heel shoe, and request Viridiana to dress in her wife’s wedding grown and vile. He eventually drugged her, with the help of his more than simply devoted maid Ramona (Margarita Lozano), and place the unconscious virgin onto bed and plan to take advantage over her. The next morning, in an attempt to prevent Viridiana from leaving, he claimed he had raped her, but when this provoked more disgust from her, he restated that he was lying (did he?). The difference between the thoughts of committing a sin and the eventual action was prominently set forth in THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARACHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, with the title character repeatedly endeavored murder to no vain. At the end, Don Jaime’s ultimate act of suicide successfully kept Viridiana away from the convent.
Fernando Rey, who went on to played lead roles in multiple Buñuel films, embodied a lonely, true-hearted old man in VIRIDIANA, instead of being sexually-driven lusty man, he was much more sympathetic. This in turn set off the guilt and shame from VIRIDIANA, she rejected the help from the mother superior in her convent, and performed charitable act unaccompanied with the inheritance from Don Jaime. It was not a lawfully liable guilt, but what she sought for was the penitence foreshadowed in an early sleepwalking scene. The second act after the death of Don Jaime, began with the arrival of Don Jorge, was a kind of reminder of his father to Viridiana. Even though she continued her ritual praying, she hid all her religious objects when he came into her room unexpectedly, a sign of a trembling faith in avoidance of any challenge. Her generous hospitality in sheltering beggars, the blind, the leper, was counteracted by the vileness and selfishness, a sickness that was bred from inequality in society. Another memorable scene involved Don Jorge rescuing a dog from being tied and trotting along a moving cart, a kindness that intriguingly not shown to his fellow human kind like the beggars, Buñuel immediately demonstrated the unavoidable fate of eternal suffering by panning the camera to another passing cart, with another dog tied to it.
Could we conclude that Buñuel was internally against charity, against human goodness, by showing the woeful truth that sometimes obscured by complacency? In Buñuel’s sister words, Buñuel violently protested when he found out the real beggar who played the leper was being paid three times less than the others. He was also the man that exhibited a violent gang tipping a legless beggar out of his cart in LOS OLVIDADOS (1952). He showed sympathy and concern, as well as the futility. I find VIRIDIANA an increasingly challenging film upon the second viewing, it could be easily over-read, yet so many meanings were left to be interpreted. The non-disciplined beggars had an orgy in the mansion when no one was around, they dismantled the organized civilization back to the animalistic instinct, they challenged the audience standard of moral. These are human and we were supposed to accept them and love them, but could we? Could Jesus and the God? What if I hate not only what they did, but also who they were? One of them even attempted to rape Viridiana, only stopped when the tied-up Don Jorge bribed another beggar killing the rapist. Blasphemous it is, but essentially.
Not until 1977, after the death of Franco, could the film be re-released in Spain. But during that late international period (the beginning ofter denoted by the success of VIRIDIANA), Luis Buñuel continued to make one masterpiece after another. One could hardly imagine what films he could made if he had more freedom or chances in the 30s and 40s, but without the obstacles, he may not be the beloved Buñuel that now we all remember. Like the rejected ending of VIRIDIANA during the stage of screenplay, Buñuel changed it into a more “immoral” ending that got passed the censorship, a subtle implication of “Ménage à trois” with Viridian, Don Jorge and Ramona. One may hate the film as it undermined their belief in humanity. But could you cure a disease without looking at the sickness? I do not blame the person who showed me the sickness of humanity. It is so bad that it feels good, actually more than good. And I feel the return of Buñuel in the same way.
Criterion Release: 2.5/4