A great many directors, when asked to name their favourite film-maker, invoke the name of Luis Buñuel. It isn’t surprising, since he was undoubtedly a genius who had the invaluable capacity to offend and delight at the same time. You could choose any of a dozen of his films as one of the best 100. Viridiana is my choice, since it caused the maximum annoyance to people one is quite glad to see offended.
It was made in Spain in 1960 after Franco had told his minister of culture to invite the country’s leading film-maker back from exile in Mexico to make whatever film he liked. But once he completed it, Buñuel sensibly decamped, deliberately leaving a few out-takes behind to be instantly burned by the authorities.
The film was, of course, banned outright in Spain and the minister reprimanded for passing the script. But it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, despite protests about it representing Spain and articles in l’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official organ, saying it was an insult not just to Catholicism but to Christianity itself.
That was exactly what Buñuel intended. He had long ago lost his faith and Viridiana was the score he had to settle with the Catholic Church, for its support of Franco and what he considered to be many other sins. “I hope I don’t go to hell”, he once said, “imagine the table talk of all those popes and cardinals”.
Viridiana, played by Silvia Pinal, is a young nun about to take her final vows. She’s so devout that she wears a crown of thorns and a large wooden crucifix hangs over her bed. Unfortunately her uncle (the great Spanish actor Fernando Rey) is hopelessly obsessed with her and gets his servant to drug her. Seduction is beyond him though, and he hangs himself in a fit of guilt after telling her that he had deflowered her.
Disorientated by these strange events, she invites a band of beggars to live in her uncle’s old crumbling estate, hoping to reclaim them, and possibly herself, through prayer and charity. They have different ideas, however, and take over the house for an orgy. One of them even rapes her. Totally disillusioned (like Buñuel), she plays a game of cards, to the strains of Shake Your Cares Away, with her uncle’s illegitimate son and the servant who is his mistress. The game ends is a kind of menage à trois.
Sequence after sequence of this extraordinary film – incredibly Spanish and yet incredibly offensive to conservative Spaniards – show both Buñuel as a master film-maker, telling a story that is simultaneously simple and sophisticated. The scene in which Viridiana piously collects her beggars, each more ugly or deformed than the next, and their singing of the Angelus as a rubbish truck thunders by, is later contrasted with their ungrateful party in the villa. A leper dresses as a bride and the company are suddenly frozen into a replica of da Vinci’s Last Supper (to the crackling strains of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus on the gramophone, which continues as the nun is molested).
This, suggests Buñuel, is what happens to saints – their virtue is thrown back in their faces. People, and the world, cannot be changed, and acceptance of things as they are is the only course.
People have said that Buñuel was first and foremost a Spaniard and then a surrealist, and it is no accident that the ending of Viridiana resembles that of L’Age d’Or, his great surrealist masterpiece made 30 years previously. But there’s a despair about this film which wasn’t in that earlier work.
“I should like”, he once famously said, “to make even the most ordinary spectator feel that he is not living in the best of all possible worlds”. The forces of darkness, he suggests, await us all. The perfect candidate for Prozac then. But then we would never have had Viridiana, one of the great feelbad movies of all time.