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Viridiana: When Obscurantist Power Attacked Buñuel’s Hopeless Utopia

Criticized by Catholics and politicians, banned in Spain until the start of the post-Franco Transition but awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes: more than religious, it is a visionary and political film, never blasphemous, with a sharp and secular spiritual aura.
Viridiana (1961)

There are authors whose art became a problem simply because it emerged in unsuitable years, culturally influenced by an eccentric and self-defending political power. Yet, this was also their fortune. And it’s not just a matter of right or left, paraphrasing Giorgio Gaber, but bipartisan. “Ideology, despite everything, I still believe exists. It is the continued assertion of a thought and its rationale with the excuse of a nonexistent contrast.” Luis Buñuel is a prime example, particularly for one of his masterpieces: Viridiana, Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1961 and banned in Spain until the post-Franco Transition. The disdainful view of the poor recalled Las hurdes (Land Without Bread, 1933), a film that had led to the director’s exile and declared the defeat of Franco’s social policies.

The film is contemporary with Ingmar Bergman‘s Winter Light. Both films share the theme of the spiritual crisis of the protagonists, a novice and a pastor, whose spiritual journeys, despite different situations, lead to total ruin; however, the two works do not share the same judgment of condemnation. Buñuel’s film was released a year after Federico Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita (1960), with which it shares various elements: the fierce attack from “L’Osservatore Romano,” Catholics, prelates, and especially, and I stress especially, politicians. This fate would be shared two years later with Pier Paolo Pasolini for the episode La ricotta (RoGoPaG, 1963), accused of insulting religion.

The film is visionary, rich in symbols that explain its inverted virtues: the powerful eroticism of the cow’s udders; the bee about to drown and being saved; the objects of passion experienced to the death of vocation; the ashes symbolizing penance and death; the white veil of purity, consecration, and fidelity; the rope for the joy of play and the pain of suicide; the crucifix housing a switchblade; the cat and mouse as a seduction strategy; the Soviet-style alternating montage of the Angelus and the workers’ labor; the truck and cart; the old furniture in the attic and the restoration, symbols of the conflict between backwardness and modernization. Suggestive is the parallel between the profane fetishism of the uncle and the sacred fetishism of the novice, an old Joseph chastely marrying a virgin.

Other religious symbols include the peeled and shared apple, the repelled leper, the dove, the Rossellini-like Angelus, the Leonardo-inspired Last Supper, and the Ecce Homo. The camera movements follow the protagonists in close-up, with tight shots, reduced close-ups, occasional full figures and rare wide shots, multiple details and particulars, frequent zooms and tracking shots, and brief sequence shots, emphasizing the investigation of the characters’ honesty or deceit.

More than religious, Viridiana is a political film. The religious framework serves Buñuel to reveal the hypocrisies of a nation that had subjected social coexistence to the exaltation of authority in its main manifestations: the State, the Church, Education, without modernization (Franco’s autarky) or cultural liberation (censorship control). The Christian morality criticized by the Spanish director is obscurantist and repressive, greedy for power and “gifts,” complicit with a strong dictator who had even contaminated relations with the Church of Rome. However, the profound atmosphere of religiosity suggested from the first notes of Handel’s Messiah‘s Hallelujah, a piece that often recurs along with Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s Mass in B minor, cannot be denied. A sacred motif of classical music that creates an inconsistent chiasmus with the jazz-pop track by Ashley Beaumont Shimmy Doll that closes the film, hinting at the carnality of the open-ended finale with a discreet zoom-in, respecting the protagonists’ passionate future.

The failed seduction of the father (Don Jaime) succeeds with the son (Jorge) in an ambiguous ménage à trois. Let’s immediately clear the field of enthusiastic and arbitrary superficial judgments. Viridiana is a deeply agnostic film, representing the thoughts of a director who derived his atheism from Jesuit school (“I am an atheist by the grace of God,” he declared). It is not an irreverent, blasphemous, sacrilegious film, as accused by Spanish newspapers and Italian Catholic critics, regarding religion. The aura of spirituality it emanates is secular, human; sharp, yes, but respectful of the signs and manifestations of faith.

It is a work that questions the reasons for humanity’s imperfection, its easy corruptibility, the impossibility of charity, the cynicism that governs coexistence, the desires and passions that deform the need for relationship and love, the degradation of the human being.

At its center is the Quixotic battle of a novice who must surrender to the circumstances of a humanly degraded, perverse, iniquitous reality. In it, Christian charity and the ethical commitment of those responsible come out as losers. They are not Hugo’s wretched nor Verga’s defeated. They are hypocritical beggars, false, whose greed has made them “Cains” and “Abels.” There is so much ferocity among these disinherited, angry poor, dishonest scoundrels, hypocrites, and boors, accustomed to vice and foul language. They have no faith, and what appears is only for interest. It is the failure of charity. In this contingency, Viridiana‘s Christian project reveals itself as a hopeless utopia. After all, the protagonist is the only one who has resisted the shocks of compassion until she inevitably surrenders. Could this not be an incentive for credible and coherent evangelical commitment towards the least?

Renato Butera

Cinematografo, June 10, 2024

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