in its homeland of Spain and denounced by the Vatican even before it
was bestowed with the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival,
director Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana is an irreverent vision of
life as a beggar’s banquet. While not the most essential of the
surrealist master’s works, it’s still an intellectually arresting and
visually captivating movie, well worth the time of devoted film buffs.
A sour allegory of Spanish idealism and its fault-line collision with and corrosion by pragmatism, Viridiana
was Buñuel’s first film made in his homeland after a self-imposed exile
of almost 20 years. It centers on an innocent, young, aspirant nun
(Silvia Pinal) who visits her lecherous and contemptible uncle, Don
Jaime (Fernando Rey). Viridiana strongly resembles her deceased aunt,
and Don Jaime begs her not to take her vows as a nun, but instead marry
him; when Viridiana refuses, he drugs and gropes her, though stops
short of complete violation. One night, then, Don Jaime hangs himself,
and leaves his estate to Viridiana and his illegitimate son, Jorge
(Francesco Rabal), who naively open the house’s doors to beggars.
Given its content, Viridiana could easily come off as
hectoring or oppressively muggy and dark, but Buñuel has such a spry
touch that the movie veritably sings at times, and its religious
provocation (chiefly a staged recreation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The
Last Supper”) may seem relatively mild by today’s standards. The
director’s fondness for Rey — a frequent collaborator — is readily
apparent, even glimpsed through the lens of this disgusting character.
The film as a whole, meanwhile, turns a skeptical eye toward the
politics of faith, and is vacuumed free of most of the absurdist
touches for which Buñuel is best known.
Housed in a regular Amray case, Viridiana comes in a
restored, high-definition digital transfer in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, with
some artifacting and minor grain here and there. Unlike most Criterion
releases, there is no audio-commentary track, relatively surprising for
a work so rife with opportunity for symbolic and critical dissection. Cineaste
editor Richard Porton, however, does sit for a 13-minute interview in
which he provides a contextual analysis of the movie and its place
within Buñuel’s canon, and Pinal sits for a 14-minute chat in which she
discusses both Viridiana and her other movies with Buñuel. Best, though, are the collected excerpts from a 1964 episode of the French television show Cineastes de Notre Temps.
The French, of course, take their auteur theory black and serious, and
in this regard Buñuel is a perfect subject. The theatrical trailer and
an insert booklet completes the set, with the latter containing an
essay by author Michael Wood and, most valuable of all, an extended
interview with the artist and filmmaker himself. B+ (Movie) C+ (Disc)