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A young woman, Karin, has recently returned to the family island after spending some time in a mental hospital. On the island with her is her lonely brother and kind, but increasingly ... See full summary »
Max von Sydow
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Harry Dean Stanton,
Viridiana, a young novice about to take her final vows as a nun, accedes to a request from her widowed uncle to visit him. Moved purely by a sense of obligation, she does so. Her uncle is moved by her resemblance to his late wife to attempt to seduce Viridiana, and tragedy ensues. In the aftermath, Viridiana tries to assuage her guilt by creating a haven for the destitute folk who live around her uncle's estate. But from these good intentions, too, comes little good. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
Viridiana may be one of the least surreal films in Luis Bunuel's career, more than likely, but it has perhaps the most acidic satire in any of his 1960s work. It's a film that, actually, might be a good portal into the director's work for those who haven't seen much or any of his work (though one could always vouch for Discreet Charm or Un Chien Andalou first). It's actually got a very straightforward narrative without too many punches pulled in delving into the characters' psyches. We're given the compassionate, caring, but also very mixed-up Viridiana, played by Silvia Pinal, beautiful and kind, but in her ultra-Catholic character is someone who cannot be tempted in the least. She is, one would suppose, the most conventional character, and we're just supposed to take for granted, in Bunuelian style, that she's just like this way. No bother- this is a masterpiece of ensemble anyway, and an ensemble practically all non-professionals (it almost seems like Bunuel picked some of them from the same village that provided Las Hurdes). It's bitter and depressing in its view of humanity, but it's expertly crafted all the way, and it builds towards a tremendous climax.
For a while it seems like something very peculiar is going on with Viridiana and her uncle (Fernando Rey, in only a supporting role but one of his very best performances), when he invites her to stay at his home but won't let here leave due to his infatuation with her. Indeed, we see- in one of the funniest bits early on- that he even tries her shoes on, and attempts to have his way with her when drugged. But Bunuel's film, for the most part, isn't necessarily as hilarious in its satire as in his other classics. Actually, it's really more of a dramatic effort here, which is all the more fascinating to me: Bunuel can pull off making what seems, at least for 2/3 of the film, to be a sincere look at how a woman makes an attempt to overcome a tragedy in her family (Rey's character's end) by taking in vagrants and homeless folk and cripples, while her 'cousin' takes over the bourgeois duties. On this level, Bunuel, and his screenwriters, have a fantastic control over the mood of scenes, and then spiking with little visual details things that just strike his fancy (i.e. in the attic with the cat and the rat, or the teats on the cow, or the crown of thorns).
...BUT, then there's a day when Viridiana has to go into town, and those she took in take over the joint, so to speak, and it makes the nighttime party scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest look tame by comparison. This is where finally, as if in a rush of clarity, Bunuel unleashes the fury of his satire, as one sees what the kindness and support that Viridiana tried to do- if not out of the genuine goodness of her heart then as just a way to clear her religiously guilty mind-set over Rey's Uncle- completely, reprehensibly backfires. At this point one sees Bunuel at his naughtiest, most crude, and still as is a given with him, playful (one of the greatest moments in the filmmaker's career comes when he deliberately sets up the Last Supper for the bums). Then, finally, one sees a very cruel and almost dehumanizing catharsis, but maybe it's not really at the same time. There is a powerful message working through much of the picture, where religion, class, attitudes are all tested in the sense of restrictions: how far is too far with temptation and free will? For Bunuel, it can be anything, which is why the outcome of Viridiana taking in the homeless and destitute becomes her psychological downfall (see her hair let down towards the end, and her blank, drained face at the card table).
And yet, all through the symbolism that seems ambiguous (girl jumping rope) and very direct (burning of crown of thorns), and with the scathing mix of sordid drama and black-as-a-bull comedy, Bunuel never loses sight of his vision, and Viridiana is a constantly watchable effort with his gracious, intuitive camera, and his sharp ear for the truth in every character's dialog. Frustrating at times, you bet, and its sensibilities on human nature, and the decisions made, make one re-think what it is to be either rich, poor, or in the middle. But it's also one of the director's best films, and a very deserved Golden Palm winner.
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