September 04, 2009

Virtues of 'Viridiana' Still Ring True

How Luis Bunuel ever got the money to direct movies is beyond me.

They're anti-clerical. Superficially decadent. And as negative about humanity as anything people will ever see.

Yet this great surrealist director had a long, superb career that carried him all the way from Spain to Mexico while he thumbed his nose at the establishment.

Talk about biting the hand that fed him. And smiling while he was at it.

Viridiana, Bunuel's 1961 masterpiece, is a prime example of how this exceptional artist got away with cinematic murder. The movie--which concerns a nun-to-be (Silvia Pinal) preparing to take her vows who is coerced into staying at the neglected mansion of her lonely, dissolute uncle (the always brilliant Fernando Rey)--lampoons everything within reach, from the church (one of Bunuel's favorite targets) to human compassion. Some scenes--such as the "beggars' banquet" in which a group of unwholesome derelicts engages in a drunken party and reenacts da Vinci's Last Supper tableau--have to be seen to be believed. Others just have to be seen. In truth, the film, though hardly tame, is relatively subdued and never beats the viewer over the head with a misanthropic ideology. It's not as funny as much of Bunuel's later work (such as The Phantom of Liberty), but it's more moving...and oftentimes quite realistic, a shocker from this surrealist master of the subconscious, a director who once gave us a razor slicing through a (cow's) eyeball in Un Chien Andalou. The reality lies in the extreme depiction of its characters' obsession, from Pinal's misguided piety to Rey's malodorous fantasies about his dead wife to his illegitimate son's hedonistic bent.

Wow. Hey, Luis--those are real characters! OK, so we don't really like them, but...they behave like real people--with real neuroses! What's up with that?

It's the mark of a great director to treat an incredible subject with conviction, and Bunuel does just that. From the beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Jose Aguayo to the brilliant use of Handel's music (especially the "Hallelujah chorus" from the Messiah), Viridiana involves you in the proceedings from the start. Small wonder it was banned in Spain in its day--if it were poorly done, no one would've paid any attention to it.

My feeling is, they should've given Bunuel more money.

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