A quick survey of Entertainment Weekly’s recent “25 Most Controversial Movies Ever” proves that even terms like “controversial” can be baldly co-opted by commercial interests. How else can we account for the presence of Ron Howard’s New Agey, theologically egalitarian, soft-on-the-Vatican adaptation of The Da Vinci Code scoring Number 13? Was anybody actually offended by that movie? Did anyone take it seriously enough to be offended? Did Howard even take it seriously?
I’m not proposing that anyone actually take Entertainment Weekly seriously, but it says something about the narrow range of the mainstream media’s cultural radar when Da Vinci ranks so prominently while Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana doesn’t even make EW’s final cut. Deliciously provocative, caustically insightful, hounded by censors and legal troubles, Viridiana was controversial in the richest sense. It’s the work a seasoned master, playfully confronting the deep-rooted socio-religious ideology that shaped his own life.
After making such an early splash with the scandalous Un chien andalou (1928) and L’age d’or (30), Buñuel underwent years of sporadic activity before reinventing himself in Mexico, where he made numerous films in quick succession, some of which (like 1950’s Los Olvidados) are among his masterworks. He’d garnered an international reputation and proved that, with age, even the most maverick artists earn grudging acceptance by the establishment.
A quarter century after the end of The Civil War, Spanish authorities decided to thaw their previously icy relations with their most notorious filmmaking progeny. Invited home under the auspices of the Franco regime he once fled from, Buñuel, a few restrictions aside, was given free reign. Viridiana was completed just in time for the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or and was declared blasphemous by the Vatican’s newspaper. The director of the Spanish Film Institute who approved the production was dismissed, the film was disowned by Spain and all prints were ordered destroyed. It was never shown there until 1977.
Picking up thematically where Nazarín (58) left off, Viridiana concerns a young nun (Silvia Pinal) who accepts an invitation from her Uncle Jaime (the marvellously melancholy Fernando Rey) to pay him a final visit before entering the convent. Jaime reveals his fetishistic obsession with his dead wife, whom Viridiana closely resembles, convincing Viridiana to dress as her before pleading with her to maintain the role permanently and live on his estate as his spouse. Viridiana leaves in disgust.
Jaime eventually finds a perverse way of making Viridiana stay, but once settled she endeavours to transform his home into a house of Christian charity, inviting vagabonds to work on the estate in return for food and shelter. The benefactors inevitably abuse Viridiana’s charity, making a wild party in her absence, climaxing in a portrait where the drunken bums are positioned at the banquet table in imitation of Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper.’
With characteristic cool, Buñuel claimed he never set out to blaspheme, and to a degree this seems genuine. Many of Viridiana’s controversial details (the crucifix switch-blade, the tortured dogs) are taken directly from Buñuel’s experiences of Spanish life. His characterization of Viridiana isn’t mocking but sympathetic. Characters aren’t judged morally, but rendered as complex and deeply human in all their weaknesses and strengths, their acts of malice or altruism. Guided by Buñuel’s increasingly elegant, quietly strange camerawork (highlighted by his jarring, erotic isolation of legs), Viridiana is unsparingly, blackly comic, but a keenly observed portrait of the follies of desire.
A French documentary on Buñuel found on Criterion's DVD of Viridiana, features comments by a Jesuit priest from the seminary where Buñuel studied. “Even in his most irreligious films,” the priest says, “some traces of religion can always be found.” This testimony is in keeping with Buñuel's famous anti-declaration "I'm still an atheist, thank God." If Buñuel could truly offend, it’s only because his films are founded in belief and wonder. And that’s something you’d never say about Ron Howard.