While Nazarin and The Young One were by no means financial successes, Luis Buñuel and his producers were very pleased with them, and, confident of consistent financial backing, he forged on to develop a number of subsequent film projects to build on the American connections he’d made with the latter film – potential adaptions of more Benito Pérez Galdos novels, Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Matthew Lewis’s 19th-century gothic novel The Monk, and works by Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar. But an unexpected thing came up; as part of Francisco Franco’s ‘modernization’ efforts in the late fifties and early sixties, Buñuel was invited to return to the Spain he had fled in the thirties to make new films. Despite a hue and cry from many of his virulently anti-fascist Spanish refugee friends, he indeed returned to his homeland. But the film he made was no capitulation – in fact, it reinvigorated many of the same controversies that his 1930s surrealist work had evoked. A cartoon of the day depicted a jovial Buñuel delivering the reels of his new film to a welcoming Generalissimo; the last panel shows the film exploding in Franco’s face.
Viridiana (Spain, 1962), like Nazarin, is yet another character study of a person of strong religious and moral convictions who has those foundations subverted by the earthbound realities of cold commerce and human nature. It’s often cited as an adaptation of Benito Pérez Galdos’ Halma, but, while it shares an incident or two from that novel, the story is completely fictionalized by Buñuel, drawing on his interest in Saint Verdiana, an Italian saint known for her early self-sacrificing charity and, later, her stark seclusion as an anchorite in a small cell in Castelfiorentino for 34 years. He also included an obsession or two of his own (a dream/fantasy of sleeping with the drugged Queen of Spain), a reference or two to DeSade, his usual injections of good-humored fetishism, and his affinity for the salt-of-the-earth types that populated a number of his Mexican films.
Viridiana (a radiant Silvia Pinal) is a young nun about to take her sisterhood vows when the Mother Superior tells her that her distant Uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), her last living relative, is unable to attend the ceremony, and requests that she visit him for a few days beforehand. Viridiana barely knows the man, but Mother Superior reveals that he’s subsidized her education, and is an earnest supporter of their work. Reluctantly, Viridiana acquiesces to the Mother Superior’s insistence. Arriving at Don Jaime’s estate, she finds him to be a pensive and saddened man who has never moved on from the death of his wife (Viridiana’s mother’s sister), and has allowed the spacious farmlands to lie fallow for over twenty years; nonetheless, he’s happy about her arrival and visit, and she quickly ingratiates herself with the other workers in the house and on the estate. But Viridiana’s been cloistered for years, and many aspects of the casual earthiness of the estate challenge her sense of chaste propriety. She learns that Don Jaime has an illegitimate son, about her age, and that his obsession with his wife’s death is far more perverse than she could imagine. Assisted by his devoted housekeeper Ramona (Margarita Lozano), Don Jaime drugs Viridiana in an attempt to violate her and prevent her from returning to the monastery; her resemblance to his late wife has addled his heart (and libido). He relents at the last minute, but tells her the next day that it is, indeed, what he did. Furious and humiliated, Viridiana packs and departs, but the police stop her from boarding the train, and reveal to her that a tragedy has just occurred. She returns to the estate to find that Don Jaime has taken his own life.
The estate and grounds are left to his only heirs – Viridiana and the illegitimate son, Jorge (the reliable Francisco Rabal, last seen in Nazarin). Jorge is an urban playboy who has been working in architecture, and has brought along his current girlfriend, Lucia. But Lucia is quickly bored with Jorge’s determined efforts to modernize the house and restore the farm, and Jorge swiftly takes up with the starry-eyed Ramona. Viridiana, meanwhile, has chosen not to return to the convent, and turns her wing of the estate into a refuge for the local indigents. She doesn’t directly blame herself, but whatever inner demons compelled Don Jaime to his depravity and suicide certainly weren’t deterred by her inner purity and devotion – she feels unworthy to return to the sisterhood, and devotes herself to helping the gnarliest of the village’s social detritus. Things start out well – the group is grateful to her, even if they think she’s a little crazy – but things disintegrate quickly when Viridiana and Jorge travel to town to confer with their lawyers. The band of beggars take over the grand house’s dining room, enjoy a spectacularly reckless dinner, and, to the strains of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ enact their own squalid tableau of DaVinci’s ‘Last Supper.’ Jorge and Viridiana return to the impressive wreckage only to be accosted by their guests, with Viridiana once again having her chastity forcibly threatened.
Needless to say, Franco was unimpressed with Buñuel’s darkly comic and deeply disturbing (even today, fifty years later, I promise) tale of pious innocence corrupted by harsh secular reality, and the film was condemned by both the Spanish government and the Vatican. Small wonder it won that year’s Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Buñuel’s flat-out masterpiece is a miraculously balanced film – he had a pretty serious budget to work with, and his work with prolific Spanish cinematographer José F. Aguayo is gorgeous throughout. Buñuel’s enlightened humanism ennobles practically every shot of the film, despite how the scenario almost relentlessly stacks the deck against his beautiful protagonist. It’s pretty clear that Mother Superior orders Viridiana to Don Jaime’s company as a concession to his material generosity to the convent, and, after Don Jaime’s death, she’s visibly relieved that Viridiana has chosen not to return there, quickly washing her hands of the whole incident. Don Jaime is a veritable catalogue of fetishes, doting lasciviously on Ramona’s young jump-roping daughter, discreetly but ardently trying on elements of his late wife’s wedding garments, and passive-aggressively enlisting Ramona in his impulsive plan to shame Viridiana into staying. When Viridiana collects her impromptu family of beggars, lepers, loose women and criminals, she clearly hasn’t the slightest notion of what she’s getting herself into. Even the final scene, with Jorge inviting the shell-shocked Viridiana to share a game of cards with he and Ramona, carries a sly carnal undercurrent. As in Nazarin, Buñuel can’t help but like even his most grotesque creations; for all of his dark eccentricities, Don Jaime is ultimately a very charming and sympathetic man, and Viridiana’s beggarly charges are ribaldly entertaining practically to the last. We can tsk and shake our heads (occasionally laughing despite ourselves) at the extremities of this squalid lot, but who’s to say that any one of them would have been unwelcome at Jesus’ own last supper? Viridiana’s good intentions are cruelly unrewarded, but we still have deep respect for them, and her, throughout the film, as does Buñuel.