Viridiana(The Criterion Collection 5.23.2006)
Returning his cinematic muse to his home country of Spain, a country still under the thumb of Franco's iron hand, Luis Bunuel delivered this poison pen letter that ended up being banned by both the Vatican -- which, just two years earlier, had considered giving Bunuel an award for his film Nazarin -- and the Spanish government, which ordered that its negative and all prints be destroyed. But the funny thing is, this is in many ways Bunuel's most normal movie. While there are surrealistic touches throughout, this is a movie with a standard three act structure and most of its wildest details are completely organic to the storytelling.
Viridiana is a pious young nun whose beauty melts the heart of her lecherous uncle, Don Jaime. Don Jaime requests that she put on his wife's wedding dress -- we earlier see him trying on an item from this ensemble -- and plies her with drink until she passes out. Once unconscious, he begins to molest her, but manages to stop himself. However, the next morning he lies to Viridiana and tells her he did go through with it, imagining that upon hearing this, she'll decide to leave the convent and stay with him. Needless to say, this does not go well. He tries to double back and protest that he is technically innocent, but her rejection drives him to hang himself.
Feeling she can't really return to the convent, Viridiana next opens a mission for several of the beggars she's seen walking the roads. Her cousin Don Jorge ("Don" being the equivalent of "sir" for you monolinguists out there) doesn't really approve of this, but he too has eyes for Viridiana -- and any other female that crosses his wandering gaze -- and he indulges this whim in her. Of course, piety and charity aren't necessarily rewarded in this crazy, go-go, mixed-up world of ours and I'll leave it to you to see where it goes from there.
Looking at the film now, it's easy to see how it pushed buttons in its day, but its audacity has faded somewhat. That's only natural, but the craft and power of Bunuel's ideas remain just as powerful. This is a film that critiques its characters without condescension. While Bunuel's misanthropy is definitely present, it feels somewhat softened by the presence of Sylvia Pinal as Viridiana. She plays this character with such sincerity that you eventually fall under Viridiana's spell, just as the men in the movie. It's interesting to bookend this performance with her last performance for Bunuel, playing Satan in Simon of the Desert.
As Don Jaime, Fernando Rey starts what is to become a string of this kind of lechy old men in a number of Bunuel's other films, most notably Bunuel's final film That Obscure Object of Desire. Here his screen time is brief, but you definitely see the start of a thread. Francisco Rabal, who plays Don Jorge, lends just the right touch of cynicism and Spanish machismo to play the ideal foil to Viridiana's faith. And of course, there's the famous "last supper" scene, but that is better seen than not read about.
So far, most of Criterion's Bunuel releases have been relatively light on extras, but they really deliver the goods here. An excerpt from the French television show Cineastes de Notre Temps provides some great interview footage with Bunuel, his sister, and several of his friends circa 1964. An interview with Sylvia Pinal, while brief, is still informative and her affection for her director and the work they did together is obvious. I can only hope Criterion gets around to releasing the other two films she made with Bunuel.
The transfer here is also quite good. There are some scratches and signs of age, but this is pretty minimal considering that (according to Ms. Pinal in her interview) portions of the negative were hidden under the floor of a barn. The disc also boasts a new subtitle translation and I did notice an improvement in some of the translation of the film's last scene. I'd tell you what the improvement is, but that might spoil it. -- Christopher Hyatt