Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Long overdue for restoration, Luis Bunuel's masterpiece Viridiana recently received just the kind of makeover it deserves from the good folks at Criterion.

This is one of my favorite films, an opinion I've based solely on a VHS dub of a fairly terrible print: washed-out, pan and scan, abysmal sound -- none of which prevented me from watching it over and again. Not surprisingly, the new disc is a real revelation: not only is it in widescreen with rich black and white tones, but it has new and improved subtitles. Apparently, the powers that be decided the movie needed a top to bottom overhaul, including a new translation, which brings out new subtleties to the script, and gives much more dimension to the minor characters. I found myself laughing at a lot of the dialogue between the beggars whom the saintly title character tries to save.

If you haven't seen it or know nothing about it, well, it's one of the most controversial films of Bunuel's career -- which is really saying something, as his early film L'Age d'Or caused a riot in France in 1930 -- and I could really bore you with a lot of the infamous details about it's making because I've read them so many times. Actually, I think I'd be boring myself, so if you want to read them check out the presumably fine essay (which I haven't gotten around to reading yet) by the estimable Michael Wood.

Let me just say that the story begins as a contrast between two of Bunuel's favorite perversions, celibacy and fetishism, and then evolves into a strange journey from innocence to experience.

The celibate, of course, is Sister Viridiana, a beautiful young nun-to-be who has been raised in the protective warmth of the church and plans to spend the rest of her life there. On the eve of taking her vows, she gets orders from her Mother Superior to go visit the sickly uncle who has provided her education. The uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) is, like his niece, a somewhat solitary character, although of another kind altogether. He lives in a crumbling Gothic mansion, where for the last few decades he has done little more than play on his dreary organ and mourn his wife, who died on their wedding night.

He also, like Bunuel, has a thing for feet; when we first meet him, he's contentedly watching a little girl as she jumps rope (presumably a favor she bestows on him on a regular basis). Don Jaime also enjoys dressing up in his late wife's wedding gown and, naturally, trying on her high heel shoes; unfortunately, Viridiana is a dead ringer for the wife and, against her better judgment, finds herself conscripted into a rather nasty game of role-playing for the old man's amusement.

I'll spare you some details here, but Viridiana soon finds herself co-inheriting the mansion with her cousin Jorge, neither of whom agree on how the place should be used. He wants to clean it up and bring electricity and new furniture into the gloomy old place; she wants to turn it into a rather elevated poorhouse for a motley assortment of local beggars, all of whom look like they've been pulled out of paintings by Breughel or Goya. Being the devout soul she is, Virdiana seems to think this group lacks only a little encouragement in realizing their true potential. Actually, they are crude, lazy, amoral, and insensitive to any needs but their own -- a point brilliantly made in the key scene, where they group themselves in a "Last Supper" tableaux, and stage a riotous, house-wrecking orgy (as Handel's "Messiah" plays on Don Jaime's creaky old Victrola) in which Viridiana herself is very nearly raped.

What's the point of doing good, Bunuel asks, not just in this film but throughout his career. Some might think his ultimate answer in the film's last scene is cynical; it's also rather brutally ironic in its way, as Viridiana gives up her faith but finds no freedom in the alternative. He's not interested in answers; the questions more than suffice.

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