Thursday, May 12, 2005

Speaking of Bunuel, Ed Gonzalez at Slant Magazine gets Viridiana wrong.

Briefly, the movie is about a devout nun who goes from innocence to experience. She goes to visit her uncle in the country, who gets her to dress up in his late wife's wedding gown, drugs her and, without actually having sex with her, kind of uses her for his own necrophiliac purposes. After he kills himself, she inherits the estate with her cousin Jorge and sets out to turn the place into a kind of socialist cooperative for the down and out. The beggars from town take fiull advantage of her kindness and -- on a day when she and Jorge are away -- raid the home and turn it into a shambles. She comes home and they try to rape her. After Jorge saves her, she forsakes her faith and decides to give herself to in Jorge -- only to find that he is already entertaining another woman. The three set down to play cards; as the camera pulls back, the implication of three-way sex is rather strong.

Gonzalez: "Viridiana is a fable about one woman who discovers just how difficult it is to change the world around her. Jorge respects Viridiana's instinct to do good but continuously reminds her that her efforts are futile. "You can't save everyone," he says, not long after he himself tries to save a dog from the brutality of man. When the members of the house leave the estate for the night, Viridiana's beggars play Handel's "Messiah" on Don Jaime's phonograph and reenact their own version of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" in what remains one of the most infamous sequences ever mounted for the screen. After nearly destroying Don Jaime's dining hall, the beggars attempt to rape Viridiana when she returns to the estate. Viridiana's controversy is ironic because, like Nazarín, it doesn't attack Christianity as an institution but its failure to truly connect with the people it seeks to help. Why break bread with people who don't even want that bread? Viridiana learns her lesson, religious hymns give way to "Shake Your Cares Away" and her rituals of denial usher in a very wholesome game of cards. And with that, Buñuel seems to say, "Welcome to the real world, my dear!"

The striking phrase here is "Viridiana learns her lesson" -- and Gonzalez seems rather oblivious to the broader and far more unpleasant implications of that lesson. Is Bunuel saying helping the poor isn't worth your time, because when you get right down to it they are all like the beggars in his movie -- people whose hand-to-mouth existence means not only taking charity, but theft as well? Is he attacking Christianity or sentimental liberalism? Either way, is he really saying helping the poor is useless, or is he not saying something a bit more penetrating about human life and society? And what's so wholesome about that card game? Viridiana sure as hell doesn't look like she's enjoying it; her face suddenly gets hard and bitter. Bunuel isn't welcoming her to the real world. He's rubbing her nose in it.

People on the left tend to see in Bunuel one of their own. Actually, what's great about him, what makes his films so compelling, is that he tended to see everything as an illusion, and liberalism was the biggest illusion of all. There's an incorrigible kind of nihilism to Bunuel that looks at any attempt to alleviate suffering as folly -- but the fact that it's folly says less about altruism than the world we live in.

"One can be relatively Christian," he once said, "but the true innocent is doomed to failure."

For all his corrosiveness, he has a strange, skewed affectionate pity for innocents.

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