Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Return to Spain

Film: Viridiana
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

First, sorry for the late post. I had some minor computer problems that prevented posting until now.

I understand why many people have problems with a lot of foreign films, and with art films in the specific. Watching a bunch of random, unconnected events and being told by someone smoking a clove cigarette that it is filled with meaning that only the most uncomprehending boob would not be moved by is frustrating. I tend to dislike things like this as well. I have no problem with movies I have to think about to understand, but I also want something more than just what someone tells me is art. For me, there has to be a story to connect with in addition to that artistic statement.

There are few filmmakers who made stronger artistic statements than Luis Bunuel. A film like Viridiana, filmed in his native Spain after a self-imposed exile of years, contains any number of symbolic statements and artistic ideas. However, it also contains a compelling story.

The title character, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is more precisely Sister Viridiana, or soon will be. She stands on the brink of taking her vows to make her a nun. In the days before this, her Mother Superior suggests she take a few days and visit her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey). Jaime has paid for her education and upkeep, but despite this, she has no affection for him, and considers him to be a man of low moral character. She goes, under orders, and discovers that she was both right and wrong.

Don Jaime is a recluse, living on a virtually deserted farm that grows nothing. He asks Viridiana to stay with him and she refuses. To compel her to stay, he drugs her with the assistance of his servant, Ramona (Margarita Lozano). Jaime is extremely conflicted. His wife died on their wedding night in her wedding dress, and Viridiana evidently looks quite a bit like her. In the years that have passed since his failed wedding, Jaime has made an extreme fetish of his late wife’s wedding clothes. He convinces Viridiana to wear the wedding dress before he drugs her, and then attempts to rape her inert body. Conscience overrides him, though. He confesses everything to her, then hangs himself.

What’s left then is the estate, which is to be decided between Viridiana and Jorge (Francisco Rabal), Don Jaime’s son from a pre-marital affair. Viridiana wishes to use her new wealth to help the poor and begins taking care of the beggars in the area, who abuse her largesse as the more cynical of us might well expect them to. And so, the film is in many ways about the real life education of the title character, who learns that the real world is not simply the good-evil, black-white dichotomy she may have envisioned from her convent education.

Throughout, Bunuel injects any number of references, symbols, and allusions, which is to be expected from a director so attuned to his art. For instance, early in the film, Viridiana sleepwalks into her uncle’s room. She throws her knitting into the fire (casting away from her the simple realities and comforts of life, or perhaps throwing away something that connects her to the convent), scoops up a basket of ashes from his fire, and dumps these on his bed. Ashes on his bed—his marriage was destroyed before it could start, and since then, his life in bed has been nothing more than ashes. Additionally, she apologizes for her somnambulism and says that ashes represent penitence and death. Shortly afterwards, Jaime repents of his own actions and kills himself.

Later in the film, the beggars take advantage of Viridiana’s hospitality, conducting an orgy of food and sex in the dining room. Unable to resist this temptation, Bunuel places them all on the same side of a long table, enacting a sinful, beggars’ version of The Last Supper. What’s the message here? That all people are both filled with sin and degradation and can simultaneously be uplifted and holy? Perhaps. That religion itself is filled with nothing more than low grade criminals and the dregs of society? Perhaps. Pick the one that works for you. However, upon its release, the film was banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican. Use this to guide you in the meaning you select.

There are some politics here as well, which is probably why the film was banned in Franco’s Spain. The film takes place in the present, or at least the present of 1961, roughly 20 years after the fascist revolution of Franco. Early in the film, Don Jaime comments that in his fields, the weeds have taken over for the last 20 years, and that spiders have infested the top floor of his house. It’s not a difficult conclusion to reach that Bunuel was speaking about Spain itself with these lines.

What makes a film like Viridiana worth watching is not the artistic elements or Bunuel’s statements throughout. What makes it worthwhile is that, like any great artist, Bunuel’s message is personal both in the sense that it comes directly from him, and that it can be interpreted in many different ways according to the thoughts, ideas, and predilections of the viewer. What makes it truly great, however, is that even without the symbolism, artistic points, and attempts at deep meaning that extends beyond the short running time, the story is good enough to carry itself. Viridiana can be enjoyed for its own sake without worrying at every turn or in every shot what mood, thought, or artistic ideal Bunuel was trying to portray.

Why to watch Viridiana: Story and art hand in hand.
Why not to watch: Bunuel loved to shock, no less here than anywhere.

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