Silvia Pinal and Fernando Rey in Viridiana (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1961).

Carnality vs. spiritual devotion.

A perversion of the Last Supper.

Buñuel's Viridiana astounds on many levels, one of the most surprising of which is its restraint: from scene to scene, the narrative movement is almost entirely conventional. It's only cumulatively that the progression of events takes on its most strikingly surreal dimensions (as opposed to the minor surrealism of individual shots or tableaus, such as Silvia Pinal's hand reaching for a cow's teats, or the Rabelaisian beggars trashing their benefactor's mansion in the manner of profane apostles). The plot summary at IMDB ("spoiler" alert), supplied by a Swedish viewer, manages to capture the obliquity of the total plot trajectory:
Don Jaime lives alone in his manor. His wife died from a heart attack on the wedding night. He has paid the gift and education so that his wife's niece Viridiana could become a nun, and wants her to visit him for a few days before she takes her final vow. She strikingly resembles her aunt and is persuaded to take on her wedding dress. Then he asks her to marry him. When she refuses, sleeping pills are put in her coffee. Jaime only decently fondles her. One the next day she leaves but is brought back by the police. Jaime had made a trap that might lead to another marriage. He acknowledges his "bastard" son Jorge, writes a will making his manor the common property of him and Viridiana, and hangs himself. Jorge starts modernising agricultural methods. Viridana gives free food and housing to many beggars. When Jorge and Viridiana must go away to see a lawyer, the beggars succeed in entering the locked great house. They make a banquet, but eventually beat asunder many things. When the owners return, most beggars leave the house forever. But one of them binds Jorge to a wall-cupboard and tries to rape Viridiana. Jorge promises another beggar money if he kills the rapist. He does so. One later evening when all is calm Viridiana goes to Jorge.

Somehow this description is all the more accurate by virtue of its English-as-second-language-ness.

Silvia Pinal glides through the film in the title role with the aloof, static blondness of a Hitchcock heroine: in particular, the thin layer of non-responsiveness and repulsion she continually threatens to rupture makes me think of Tippi Hedren in The Birds or Marnie (which came out around the same time or a little after). The closing sequence gave me that feeling I occasionally get of excited emotional collusion with the director: "is he going to end the movie here? yes, yes, do it, end it here! he did it! he's ending it here!"

Buñuel, as was often his custom, cast people off the street in the roles of the beggars, including one mentally deranged man who gives a shatteringly disturbing performance. Bunuel's treatment of these dissheveled, incapacitated poor is entirely unsentimental, if not downright cynical: their disenfranchisement has rendered them incapable of ethical agency (whether the more privileged characters possess such agency is, of course, one of the film's provocative opacities). This is my favorite thing about Buñuel's artistic-political sensibility, actually: its conflictedness. In the interview included with the Criterion DVD, he more than once mentions his guilty love for American conveniences, for clean streets and modern amenities. If his leftism were not so often compromised by his weakness for material comfort--and its aesthetic pleasures, which he takes pains to distance himself from, but does not fool anyone--he would not be such a compelling artist. Watching him talk with his interviewer, I felt something like the affective glow of deep friendship, intermingled with a mild bemusement that can never turn into contempt, but only makes the glow burn a little brighter.

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