"Paganism is infectious, more infectious than diphtheria or piety."
E. M. Forster
Around 50 years ago, a Spanish-Mexican film provoked the wrath of the Holy See. The Vatican, through his own journal L'Osservatore Romano, described the movie Viridiana as blasphemous and excommunicated all the people who worked on it.
This masterpiece could only come from the mind of the surreal director Luis Buñuel. Considered as one of the 100 best movies of all times, Viridiana (featuring Silvia Pinal, Francisco Rabal, and Fernando Rey) tells the story of a nun who's about to take her holy vows but is invited by her uncle Don Jaime to visit him.
When the uncle sees her niece, he is very impressed by how she resembles his late wife, which arouses him in inexplicable ways, so he tries to rape her while she's asleep. Soon he regrets his impulse and sets Viridiana free. However, in an attempt to keep her with him, Don Jaime lies to her and tells her they had sex. Obviously, Viridiana feels disgusted at her uncle and Don Jaime, unable to cope with his guilty, commits suicide.
After Don Jaime's death, Viridiana decides to follow a pious life and decides to shelter a group of homeless people at her uncle's house. However, instead of showing gratitude, they attack her and rob her. Suddenly her life changes with the arrival of Jorge, Don Jaime's son and her cousin.
The movie was filmed in Spain, during Franco's dictatorship. This sparked a lot of interest in the audience since it had been a long time since Buñuel worked in his home country. Buñuel was fervently opposed to Franco's regime and as such he was exiled to Mexico.
Although the movie alludes to Benito Pérez Galdós' novel Halma, for his protagonist, Buñuel was inspired by a painting of a nun with a large crucifix lying at her feet. The painting, exhibited at the Chopo Museum in Mexico City, is called Saint Viridiana. Filled with black humor moments and surreal hints this film could almost be divided into two parts. The first follows a linear narrative influenced by the Gothic tradition,which concludes with the suicide of Don Jaime, and the second part resembles a social commentary.
The film was condemned by many conservative groups, since it was considered a criticism towards Christian piety. Despite her efforts to perform acts of kindness, she is thwarted at every turn and unfairly treated. As the story progresses we can see how Viridiana evolves, from a demure novice to a woman who lusts for the young Jorge.
Luis Buñuel subtly manages to create an atmosphere of despair and morbid curiosity, a quality that characterizes his craft. His camera would freely move around the set and his highly esthetic shots would be tinted with subtle erotic undertones, for instance the sequence where the camera sweeps across the thighs of the protagonist or the hands of the nun, gently touching the udders of a cow.
The use of symbolism within the filmography of this iconic director is constant and Viridiana is no exception.
For example, when Viridiana is about to be raped by the homeless men, she fiercely grabs hold of the same rope her uncle used to kill himself. Also, in the final sequence a crown of thorns is burnt in a fire. Surprisingly it was none of these scenes that stoked the outrage of the conservative audience, in fact the iconic scene that was seared into the minds of the people was when the vagabonds organize a banquet where they get completely drunk and in their stupor decide to recreate Da Vinci's Last Supper while Händel's The Messiah plays in the background. In the distance a rooster is heard, representing the Biblical passage where Peter denied Jesus three times.
In the last sequence, Viridiana decides to enter Jorge's room while he is accompanied by another woman. They invite her to play cards and it is in this moment that the protagonist finally succumbs to lust, suggesting a ménage à trois.
The film premiered at the Cannes Festival, where it was a awarded a Palme d'Or and the admiration of the critics. At the same time, it was condemned by the Vatican and the Spanish government who censored it by ordering a mass burning of all existing copies.
Viridiana was secretly screened for 10 years, until a jury allowed Mexican producer Gustavo Alatriste the legal distribution of the film. Buñuel, always considered a cold and analytical director, managed to create an iconic story about the loss of innocence and the true colors of human nature.
Half a century later, Viridiana has become one of the most controversial and acclaimed movies by Luis Buñuel. He used to say that the images would come into his mind, creating a story of their own, but he never intended to write a narrative thesis that proved Christian charity is futile. "Only the stupid have those pretensions."
Sexual freedom has been repressed by a conservative society who considers that women shouldn't feel pleasure at all. Fortunately, this has started to change with the passing of time.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards