For a literal minded viewer watching Buñuel’s Viridiana for its surface content is to miss great many gems hidden away and the key to the film is what is unexplained. ( refer the section on parable). His position in terms of moving pictures is what Dali represented in static pictures. Dali would show a limp watch to suggest persistence of time and juxtaposing it in a landscape executed with clarity (more than warranted) it sticks out incongruous. In other words its raison d’etre is as valid as the incongruity of objects one encounters in dreams. Buñuel is much more. He is a moralist but not in the manner a die-hard bourgeosie would have liked. No wonder the Catholic Church thought him blasphemous and despite the film winning the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, it was banned in Spain for sixteen years.
The film has a strong narrative and a feel for the specific period in which it is supposed to occur. “The real purpose of Surrealism”, as he said, was “to explode the social order, to transform life itself.” Thus the young novitiate who is about to take her vows named Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), follows the advice of the Mother Superior that she should visit her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), her only living relative. Dutifully she follows her instruction only to encounter the unexpected. It is in what constitutes the unexpected one realizes he is an anarchist as M. C. Zenner would say, ‘æsthetically or politically’.
The film focuses on Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), who before she takes her vows visits her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), her only living relative. Not long after she is settled in his large country estate, he tries to seduce her, believing that she resembles his deceased wife. His intentions are after a fashion honorable since he dangles marriage before her. Viridiana attempts to flee the house immediately, but is subdued by Jaime and drugged with the help of his servant Ramona. He takes her to her room and considers raping her in her sleep, but no he has still his moral issues to sort out and he decides to wait and see.
The next morning he lies to her that he took her virginity. He hopes thereby to keep her there longer. If he thought it would stop her from returning to the convent he is mistaken. Instead she is disgusted and starts to pack. He tries to rectify the situation by admitting his lie and asking forgiveness. She leaves the house. She is on the way back to the convent when the authorities stop her, telling her something terrible has happened. Back at the house, her uncle has hanged himself.
Very epitome of moral propriety Viridiana collects the village paupers, returns to the estate, and installs them in an outbuilding. Perhaps she hopes to purge the odium of the diseased uncle with good deeds. Shunning the convent, she instead devotes herself to the moral education and feeding of the poor. The beggars are very much her ticket to a higher level of sanctity. (Perhaps Spain was a microcosm of Don Jaime’s demesene into which Franco and his men represent the motley crew?) Meanwhile, Don Jaime’s son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal), moves into the house with his girlfriend, Lucia. He, like his father, lusts after Viridiana, who scorns him.
Viridiana however makes the best of the changed circumstances and is accepted by Jorge as one in the family. When they all leave to visit a lawyer in the town, the paupers break into the house, initially out of curiosity. But, faced with such bounty, things degenerate into a drunken, riotous orgy –all to the strains of Handel’s Messiah. Posing for a photo (sans camera) around the table, the beggar’s tableau resembles Da Vinci’s Last Supper. (This scene, in particular, earned the film the Vatican’s opprobrium.)
The members of the household return earlier than expected to find the house in shambles. As Jorge and Viridiana walk around the house in shock, the beggars excuse themselves and leave without explaining their behaviour. Jorge continues to inspect the house upstairs and encounters a beggar who pulls a knife on Jorge. Another beggar comes from behind and breaks a bottle over Jorge’s head, knocking him out. When Viridiana arrives, she sees Jorge on the floor and runs to his side, but is then overpowered by the two beggars. Viridiana would surely have been raped except that Jorge, who is tied up, bribes one beggar to kill the other.
Viridiana is a changed woman as the film concludes: her crown of thorns is symbolically burnt. Wearing her hair loosely, she knocks on Jorge’s door, but finds Ramona, with Jorge in his bedroom. With “Shake Your Cares Away” on the record player, Jorge tells Viridiana that they were only playing cards, and urges her to join them, a conclusion that is often seen as implying a ménage à trois.
Buñuel’s film can be seen as a parable on the social changes that are peculiar to Spain (represented by the estate) where Viridiana’s life undergoes changes. The entire segment where the rascally beggars overrun the estate is the turning point and it marks Viridiana moving into a new direction. Franco’s dictatorial regime like the beggars created a cleavage, the hurt of which is even now barely overcome. The Church may have had for centuries dominated Spain but she shall like lead character come to sit down with the likes of Ramona, a servant and Jorge, who is an illegitimate son, acknowledged in the end as heir. With Socialism or Capitalism, progressive or conservative, Viridiana must take her chances like everyone else. At the closing shot we see a card game is about to begin where Ramona with her sexual appetites, seems to have already established some understanding with Jorge and holds an advantage over Viridiana.
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Produced by Gustavo Alatriste
Written by Julio Alejandro
Distributed by Films Sans Frontières
Running time 90 min.
* Silvia Pinal as Viridiana
* Fernando Rey as Don Jaime
* Francisco Rabal as Jorge
* Margarita Lozano as Ramona
* Victoria Zinny as Lucía
* Teresa Rabal as Rita
* Lola Gaos as Mendiga
Viridiana was the first feature film Buñuel ever made in his native Spain. After the film was completed and sent by the Spanish cinematographic authority to the Cannes Film Festival, and awarded, the government of Francisco Franco tried unsuccessfully to have the film withdrawn. The film was only released there in 1977, when Bunuel was seventy-seven years old.