Life is a bitch and then you play cards; even with a crappy hand. The type of the card game is a variant on Utopianism and the odds of beating the house are slight indeed.   Luis Bunuel startled filmgoers with the ferocious imagery of a film called “Viridiana” , a commercially successful film that followed other powerful films like “Le Chien Andalou” ( 1929) , “Land Without Bread” (1932 ), “The Young and the Damned” (1951) and “The Exterminating Angel” ( 1962) among others. There is a discomfort that the forces of darkness await us all. Despair and pessimism is the suggestion of any higher aspirations of would be saints: virtue is thrown back in their face. There is a belief, a strand of  Marxism leavened with the humanism of Martin Buber that the world cannot be ostensibly changed and that acceptance of things as they is the only course of a action. Films will not raise human consciousness, but may provoke and entrench what it meant to delegitimize.

The way the story unfolds is like the progress of a dream. Viridiana’s close resemblance to her aunt sounds like the “you were there, but you weren’t you” episodes that friends often hear from dreamers. Viridiana’s dress-up date with her uncle reveals incestuous impulses in her as well, to come to full flower by the end of the dream.

Inspired by a painting of a little known saint and an old erotic fantasy about making love to the queen of Spain while she was drugged, Buñuel  in “Virdiana” constructs his most coherent film about spiritual idealists, who are eventually crushed by human folly. In hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine how such a simple film was so misunderstood in its time, but that answer seems imbedded in its sophistication, and multiple sub-plots  in a contradictory co-existence that serves as structure for the narrative tension.

----If the charge of blasphemy has today lost its kick, what makes Viridiana such an enduring shocker? The discomfiting currents of necrophilia and incest are made all the more effective for their overt subtlety—like the greatest of storytellers, Buñuel is a master of hiding things in plain sight. The timeless look of the film encourages us to accept the primarily sexual nature (albeit one-sided) of Viridiana’s relationships with her uncle and cousin, but this isn’t 17th Century Spanish royalty here, this is 1961. And even though the script (which Buñuel admits was altered to adhere to production codes) takes pains to demonstrate that neither man is blood-related to her, the fact that her only two living family members are so vocal about their determination to have sex with her is terrifying in the manner of Polanski’s horror trilogy—namely, it raises paranoid anxieties that home and family are infinitely more dangerous than strangers and the outside world.----

Bunuel’s pessimistic despair seems closely related to Walter Benjamin’s leftist critique between the dominant positivist humanism that promises utopia and the nagging dissent of the negativists: ” Most central to Benjamin’s project is the critique of allegory, understood as a real religious position. In a surrealistic manner his position is close to the Cabalistic, lacking a positive religious faith. His pessimism discloses the presence of violent conflict between two tendencies: a positive optimistic utopian tendency and a pessimistic – the latter culminating in a negative utopianism and merging into the tradition of thought … of  redemption. His pessimism discloses the presence of violence within the continuity of “the whole time everything is the same” as a cosmic fate, a fate grounded in mystic necessity. He regards reality as essentially tragic, yet not as a partial historical stage or as an accident, but as normality itself….

…”The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’, in which we live is not an exception, but a rule.” The fact that “everything continues as usual” is the eternal “catastrophe,” which according to Benjamin discloses the boundless dominance of the mythical. This is the basis of the “Kafka-like situation,” which determines the subject as described in the article “Franz Kafka.” The “original sin” makes itself present at each moment in history, and according to Benjamin it turns out to be a reaction to the subject’s being a victim of cosmic injustice permanently directed against him.

…A great many directors, when asked to name their favourite film-maker, invoke the name of Luis Buñuel. It isn’t surprising, since he was undoubtedly a genius who had the invaluable capacity to offend and delight at the same time. You could choose any of a dozen of his films as one of the best one hundred; with  ”Viridiana”  often the choice, since it caused the maximum annoyance to people one is quite pleased to see offended.

It was made in Spain in 1960 after Franco had told his minister of culture to invite the country’s leading film-maker back from exile in Mexico to make whatever film he liked. But once he completed it, Bunuel  sensibly decamped, deliberately leaving a few out-takes behind to be instantly burned by the authorities.

---There’s an understated perversity running through the film that complements the set-pieces well, as with Don Jaime trying on his wife’s wedding shoes and corset, or his servant’s daughter skipping below the tree from which Don Jaime hangs himself (with the skipping rope he bought for her). ‘Don Jaime liked to watch me skip’ she says. You get the feeling that Don Jaime in his death has a smile on his face. Objects too travel through the film along with people: the skipping rope that is a means to look at a young girl’s legs becomes a noose and then the cord for a pair of beggar’s trousers. Buñuel has the capacity to make the smallest details indecent too, as when Don Jaime’s son Jorge puts his fingers into a tiny jewelled purse after he has talked about his attraction for Viridiana.---

Viridiana has many virtues, and the greatest of these,as mentioned,   in almost all of Bunuel’s films, is the power to disturb. The heroine, named after a saint, is a chaste woman who wishes to perform good deeds. Seeking to repent for a sin for which she blames herself, she gathers a collection of disgusting and cynical beggars around her, hoping her charity will save their souls. Bunuel was educated by Jesuits, much like Alfred Hitchcock,  and his films are centered around the interplay of the trinity of eroticism, religion and death. His obsessions and imagery have always been intentionally provocative: Sex without religion is like an egg without salt. Banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican, Luis Buñuel’s irreverent vision of life as a beggar’s banquet is regarded by many as his masterpiece in a clear example of anti-narrative and anti-allegory to da Vinci’s Last Supper.

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In it, novice nun Viridiana does her utmost to maintain her Catholic principles, but her lecherous uncle and a motley assemblage of paupers force her to confront the limits of her idealism. Her altruism is greeted with ridicule and cruelty. Pinal gives a superb performance in the title role, and Buñuel’s clear-eyed wit is relentless in its depiction of human selfishness, ingratitude, and cynicism. The final beggars’ orgy – a black parody of the Last Supper, performed to the ethereal strains of Handel’s Messiah – is one of the director’s most memorably disturbing, funny, and brutal scenes.

---Don Jaime’s obsession with Viridiana as a stand-in for his dead wife is quite reminiscent of the Jimmy Stewart/Kim Novak relationship in Vertigo, released three years prior. In both films, an actress is double-cast as a dead woman (hauntingly depicted in a painting) and her live doppelganger. Both women are kept by lonely men who dress them up in the deceased’s clothes, and both men face ruin in their perilous attempts to repossess and commune with the dead. That David Lynch would later recycle this delightfully spooky convention in Twin Peaks and a number of his films is evidence that it still hits a nerve today. Viridiana’s nightmarish quality is continued in the second half of the film through disturbing juxtapositions of the beautiful Viridiana and her grotesquely deformed, disfigured beggars. (As a side note, the banquet/orgy at the end of Viridiana is either a direct or coincidental visual quotation of the wedding feast at the climax of Todd Browning’s 1932 sideshow horror Freaks, which was notoriously revived and appropriated as art cinema at the Venice Film Festival in 1960.)---

Bunuel, like Ingmar Bergman and Fellini worked a vein of view on the human condition that attained considerable importance. Through them, movies became more subtle than they once were; the film director joined the poet, the philosopher, the theologian, the scientist and the historian to spin with them in the great vortex of explanations of our world.

In the age of silent movies, film was considered a vulgar art, or no art at all but a source of sensations for the masses. For the most part film directors were satisfied merely to make obvious , heavy references to the modern condition. In pictures like Chaplin’s “City Lights”  the comedy and pathos were primary and we were left to form our own conclusions about tender tramps and drunken millionaires. Chaplin’s later films, however, were intellectually ambitious, his thinking becomes primary , and Monsieur Verdoux being led to execution says “Numbers Sanctify.” The state may slaughter men in quantities, but private enterprise in death leads to he gallows and the guillotine. The thought is not original; but what was new was this appearance of a larger intellectual ambition in the movies.

Unfortunately her uncle (the great Spanish actor Fernando Rey) is hopelessly obsessed with her and gets his servant to drug her. Seduction is beyond him though, and he hangs himself in a fit of guilt after telling her that he had deflowered her. Disorientated by these strange events, she invites a band of beggars to live in her uncle's old crumbling estate, hoping to reclaim them, and possibly herself, through prayer and charity. They have different ideas, however, and take over the house for an orgy. One of them even rapes her. Totally disillusioned (like Buñuel), she plays a game of cards, to the strains of Shake Your Cares Away, with her uncle's illegitimate son and the servant who is his mistress. The game ends is a kind of menage à trois.

Bunuel viewed himself as a sort of poet and radical uncompromising thinker. Since “Le Chien Andalou” , the short surrealist picture he made with Salvador Dali in the late 1920′s, his social and religious concerns were visibly apparent and unequivocal. In a typical sequence from that film a lover whose face is strained with desire pursues a woman who understandably, even in surrealist fantasy, shrinks from him because he has a haler about his neck and is pulling a load that consists of two grand pianos, two dead donkeys, decomposing and slimy, and two priests in full clerical garb. These elements:passion,terror,religion,death,bourgeois culture in the form of the pianos, continued to evolve into “Viridiana” albeit in a richer, less primitive and more mature form.

Bunuel’s films have almost always dealt with poverty. In almost all of them the starving, the crippled, the sick, the blind, the dead are shown vividly and violently; an objective hardness based on the Marxian conception of social injustice.  Bunuel’s  ”Land Without Bread” may be the most naked record of death by starvation ever made. Bunuel spares very little: there is nothing resembling sentimental manipulation in any of these films, no effort to exploit easy sympathies or to prick the heart and make it bleed a bit, a pleasant enough thing for the audience, in careful moderation. Unlike Fellini who, in “La Dolce Vita” , hovers over his horrors and often betrays an Italianate softness in the presence of blood and death, Bunuel strikes his blows in quick succession and does not linger over his effects.

The scene in which Viridiana piously collects her beggars, each more ugly or deformed than the next, and their singing of the Angelus as a rubbish truck thunders by, is later contrasted with their ungrateful party in the villa. A leper dresses as a bride and the company are suddenly frozen into a replica of da Vinci's Last Supper (to the crackling strains of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus on the gramophone, which continues as the nun is molested). This, suggests Buñuel, is what happens to saints - their virtue is thrown back in their faces. People, and the world, cannot be changed, and acceptance of things as they are is the only course.

The beauty of the picture is miraculously inseparable from its horrors. The weird reclusive uncle who Viridiana visits is touchingly unaware of his perversity. He dreams continually of the bride who died in his arms years ago and when Viridiana appears he quickly takes her to be the deceased bride. The eccentric Spanish gentleman, narcotized by his queer solitary life and his erotic devotion to the dead, is almost too remote from life to discern any wickedness in his desires. He does everything he can to prevvent the girl returning to the convent.

He goes so far as to beg her to wear her dead aunt’s wedding dress, a very particular favor, and then, with the assistance of his housekeeper, he drugs her, and carries her sleeping to the bed. There he begins to unbutton the gown but cannot bring himself to take advantage of her. In the morning, desperare over her impending departure, he tells her she is no longer pure and cannot take her vows. Believing the lie, she leaves the house in horror, but is stopped at the railway station and brought back by the police. Her uncle has hung himself with the jump rope of his housekeeper’s daughter. And, by the terms of his will, made just before his suicide, Viridiana inherits half her uncle’s estate. The other half goes to his natural son, Jorge. …. to be continued…

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