Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Luis Buñuel | Viridiana

four forms of loving
by Douglas Messerli

Luis Buñuel and Julio Alejandro (screenplay, based, in part, on Benito Pérez Galdós’ novel Halma), Luis Buñuel (director) Viridiana / 1961, USA 1962

The announcement that after 25 years in exile Luis Buñuel would again make a film in his Spanish homeland made waves throughout Mexico and Spain, particularly within Franco’s government which held Buñuel as one of the triumvirate, along with Pablo Picasso and Pablo Casals, of the distinguished cultural opponents to Franco’s regime.
      If the Spanish government, however, looked forward to the result, what Buñuel offered them in his new film, Viridiana, was like a slap in the face, a work that once more devastatingly attacked Catholicism and the Spanish State’s brutal oppression.

     Loosely based on a novel Halma, Buñuel’s film, if read only narratively, is the tale of a young Catholic novitiate (Silvia Pinal), who almost on the eve of her taking vows, is sent by her Mother Superior to visit her supposedly ill uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), who has paid for much of her religious education. Anyone who has seen a Buñuel film knows that such a voyage—particularly one that involves a “return,” which critic Marcel Olms argues is at the core of this film—can only bode ill. When the first scene of the Don Jaime estate is represented by a young child jumping rope, with the camera lingering on her joyful exercises from the waist down seemingly forever, we already know that things can only end badly for the beautiful and innocent Viridiana.            

     Her uncle immediately perceives how closely Viridiana resembles her aunt, whom he married only to suffer her death the night of their wedding (Buñuel is careful never to tell us how such a strange coincidence might have occurred). At first all seems placid enough as Viridiana settles into Don Jaime’s wealthy, but Medieval-like antiquated estate. But as the time approaches when she will return to the convent, things quickly change. We have already observed that the elderly landowner—who far from being ill, seems fairly robust—secretly takes out the clothing he has saved from his dead wife, dressing up in the some of the articles, while obsessively stoking his wife’s shoes, foretelling the old shoe-fetishist of Buñuel’s 1964 picture Diary of a Chambermaid. For her part, Viridiana seems preoccupied with self-flagellatory acts, setting out a bed upon the floor while shuffling various crowned thorns; during a long sleepwalking incident, she deposits ashes she has gathered from the mansion hearth on her host’s bed, symbolic, she later suggests, of either penitence or his wished-for-death.    

     Don Jaime’s loyal servant, Ramona, and her nearly wild daughter, meanwhile, are expert voyeurs, who report their findings back to their employer. On the eve of Viridiana’s leaving, the old man begs her to dress up in the wedding gown his wife wore on the day of her death. After first refusing, Viridiana suddenly shows up, ravishingly beautiful, in the gown, to her uncle’s astonishment and delight. But he further repels her by proposing marriage, even if it remains, as he promises her, entirely sexless. She is about to leave, before, seemingly regretting his declarations, he begs her to stay just a little longer, promising no more assaults. She reluctantly agrees, while Ramona, brewing tea, infuses it—with the old man’s instructions—with a drug that puts her to sleep.

      Intending to rape her, Don Jaime only kisses her breasts before somewhat chastely re-buttoning her blouse and retreating, obviously being too gentlemanly to actually go through with the act. But when Viridiana awakens, determined to immediately leave, he tells her that she cannot return, for she is a changed woman, that he has “made her his forever.” With even greater determination, Viridiana dresses and calls for her suitcase, Don Jaime finally admitting the truth, that he has not raped her, and pleading for her to stay. But all of this does no good, as the novice escapes the house of horrors.

      She only gets as the next community, however, before the police stop her and demand her return yet again to Don Jaime’s estate, yet another return that symbolically serves almost as a kind of chain from which she cannot escape. The old man has hung himself with the child’s jump rope (the noose representing another image of inescapability), and has left the house and the land to Viridiana and his long ignored son from his first marriage, Jorge, a literal minded lecher who soon arrives with his current mistress.

      One might describe the rest of the film as a continuation of Viridiana’s education in the folly and foibles of human beings, representing to her the absurdity of imbuing the human species with noble qualities that the society in which they live do not allow them even imagine, let alone aspire to. It is the remarkable way in which the director reveals these lessons that ultimately makes Viridiana one of his very best works, a film in my mind that stands with Exterminating Angel as his greatest of motion pictures.

      While Jorge (Francisco Rabal), living in the main house with his mistress, plans to re-farm the land and upgrade the general estate, Viridiana, living in the out-houses, brings together a band of outrageous cripples, dwarves, whores, a possible leper, and other outcasts who have been living on the street. In order follow her personal vows of mercy and, perhaps, to redeem their lives, she has these arguing, lazy, lying, and outright violent figures, some of whom soon leave, unable to bear one another’s company. Those who remain in the company of the “generous lady” take advantage of her largesse. And when she demands that they each choose jobs to keep them busy and that they join her each day in religious ceremonies, it is clear that her piety is warring thin, as their abuse of one another and the two children who have arrived with them increases. When Jorge and Viridiana are called to the city one day on judicial business, the former beggars break into the mansion house, spread the main table with expensive tableware and celebrate with stolen lambs, wine, and other foods as they gradually fall into a kind of drunken orgy that only someone like Goya or….Buñuel, of course, might have whipped up! Not so very different from Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures of only two years later, these scenes brilliantly satirize the big-studio bacchanalias by revealing the ordinary coarseness and sloppy sentimentality of events. With Handel’s “The Hallelujah Chorus” blaring out from the gramophone, these miserable would-be miscreants behave like children imagining themselves in the shoes of the landowners and authorities who have kept them for all these years in social and even bodily bondage.

      Upon the unexpectedly early return of Jorge and Viridiana, most of them scatter away like the bad children they have been, but two, more drunk perhaps and certainly more violent, remain, threatening Viridiana with rape and rendering Jorge unable to protect her. At the very last moment, Jorge returns to consciousness, convincing the co-conspirator to kill his fellow rapist before he completes the act.

      It hardly matters, however, that Viridiana retains her virginity, for she is now, through the psychological terrorism she has suffered, truly a “changed” woman, incapable of even imagining the acts of mercy she once aspired to.

     The last grand operatic scene of this grand melodrama ends in Jorge’s room as we see him about to bed the servant Ramona, with whom he has developed a relationship since his mistress left. Just as they are about to begin, there is a knock at the door. It is Viridiana, now with her hair down and carefully brushed, clearly ready to enter into a sexual liaison with her “cousin.” When she sees Ramona, she is about to leave, until Jorge calls her in to join in a card game with the two of them, suggesting that he has always known that they would “play cards together,” Buñuel’s camera pulling back out through the open door.

      When Spanish censors refused to permit Buñuel to film the scene as he had originally planned, by having Viridiana enter Jorge’s room and closing the door behind her, the wily director changed it to the much more evocative scenario I describe above, which, in its clear implications of a soon-to-be sexual ménage-a-trois, is far more risqué than the original.

      The film showed out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, but unprecedentedly won the Palme D’Or nonetheless. The Spanish representative at the festival immediately declared the film Spain’s 1961 official entry; but after the event, Spain dissociated itself from the work, banning the film, and going as far as to burn any outtakes that Buñuel had left behind. The film was not shown in Spain until 1977.

      The manner in which I have contexualized the film above is a variation of most of the critics’ reactions to this film, almost all agreeing that Buñuel, in this work, was once again excoriating church and state. Perhaps Marcel Martin summarized this position most eloquently, writing:

                          He [Buñuel] is a great social moralist who has no illusions

                          about human nature but who understands and makes us
                          understand (like Brecht) that people are too often corrupted
                          by the conditions of their lives and that you have to reform
                          society before you can hope to transform human beings. 

       Even if I agree that this is the major trajectory of Buñuel’s narrative, however, the film, in its ebullient almost Bosch-like satire of the human species, seems somehow to ignore the humanist filmmaker that we had seen previously in some of the Mexican films of the decade before. Is the world so corrupt, we must finally ask, that there is no alternative for a woman like Viridiana but the cold, sexual fling with Jorge (and, apparently, Ramona) that she, at film’s end, is about to embrace?

       If Viridiana is primarily a kind of harangue against corrupt power, I would argue, it is also a more caring study of the possibilities of human relationships. If instead of looking at the film as a kind of ongoing flow of narrative events centered upon the young novice, we were to look at the work in terms of its explicitly delineated episodes, we might easily perceive it as an investigation into different forms of love, with the director exploring their effects upon the individual.

       Obviously, living in the communal world of a convent, Viridiana is like a child, not far different from the squadrons of passing school boys with which the film begins. The convent and its structures is like an ancient model of family life, with each member being told her place and duties and given instruction of how and what to think about the world. As reward for this permanent infantilism, the nuns are rewarded near unconditional love from their superiors and, for believers such as Viridiana, by God. Although the Mother Superior under which Viridiana lives has already packed her bags and made the decision about her trip to visit her uncle, she poses the possibilities of the voyage as questions you might offer a child: “Wouldn’t you like to go on a trip to visit your uncle?” It is only when the young novice balks at the idea, that it becomes clear that she has no choice, as it becomes evident that everything has been decided for her.

       Although this may represent a kind of love, it is an emotion, as we learn later, that is based on reward and, in particular, punishment, not on desire or, most certainly, free-will and  intellect. It is an unthinking love that is centered on passivity, the women of the convent being forced to give up their lives—and with it any ratiocination—to God and their order’s lethal embrace. Certainly there is no choice nor reason involved with this kind of love.
So too, do we quickly perceive, reason is missing from the kind of romanticized vision of love represented by Don Jaime. The uncle’s love is something not of the present, of the real world, but of the past, of the dead: the object of love being whisked away the moment the love is enacted. Without any reality, is a love filled with obsessions (the voyeurism, fetishism, and other uncontrollable urges that we see played out in many of Buñuel’s films) which only fuel further infatuations. Love, in this form, hardly ever results in consummation, but as in Wagner’s Tristam and Isolde, is centered upon an unfulfilled desire. As we see through the model of Don Jaime, any consummation of the act—even a lie of consummation—can only end in death. This ancient form of love, Buñuel helps us to perceive, is the most destructive of all in its inability to allow expression.

     Given her religious upbringing and the numerous homilies of church going notions of mercy, it is little wonder that, after her brush with the creepy carnality of romanticism, Viridiana chooses to enact her love in spiritual terms, bringing together a kind of impossible family, made even more loveable to her by their being so impossible to love. Although she may feel that she is offering the individuals she has chosen “something” in her very act of loving them, she cannot recognize that it is a meaningless love unless the lover can return the emotion. The beggars and cheats she has chosen may certainly recognize her kindness and enjoy the very fact that she has chosen to embrace them, but it’s clear they have no ability to truly share her saintly sensations. In fact, in loving in this manner, there need for a real object, for this love, ultimately, is a self-love, a love that rewards the lover in the very knowledge that she has able to find it within herself to proffer such mercy. Like a bubble, such a self-inflated love is always doomed to burst, as it does when the celebrants, in mockery of her Christian teachings, recreate a kind of orgiastic vision of love that Viridiana might have imagined closer to Satan’s perversities. Indeed, in the marvelous scene in which a woman beggar promises the others to take their photograph—while they pose quickly in a scene reminiscent of Di Vinci’s “The Last Supper”—only to lift her dress to reveal her cunt, the director inverts Viridiana’s vision of love to show everything it isn’t: no body, no feeling, no humor, no absurdity troubles her inflated self- infatuation.

      The final vision of love Buñuel conjures up might be described, in the context of his film, as modern love: like the popular song now being played on Jorge’s record-player,  it is a love so transitory and empty that it need not even be shown or talked about. We can easily imagine it: Ramona lying on one side of Jorge, Viridiana on the other as he kisses and hugs each of them, turning to fuck them each, one by one. It will end in a few days, weeks, months, leaving nothing, not even memory, behind it.

      The director does not offer us an alternative. And, in that sense, one might argue his examination of the potential of love is just as bleak as is his overall social satire. But here, I would argue, Buñuel does ask us, as we retreat from the door of the final failed vision of love, to imagine another version of love that we might seek for our lives, a love that does not create a prison, that does entail the nonexistence of the other, that does not merely involve our desires or motives, that is not just about temporarily fulfilling our bodily desires.

     As far as I can see, there is no evidence of any of these potential qualities in Buñuel’s damned beings. But there is one single incidence that stands out. Given what we have seen, we could hardly describe Jorge as a commendable figure; we might describe Jorge as practical, an achiever who may even restore Don Jaime’s estate to its former glory, but he is no potential hero or model of possible restorative behavior. Yet in one instance, he suddenly appears out of character. Observing a small odd-jobber’s car to which a small dog is tied, the dog forced to trot continuously at the speed of the car, Jorge berates the driver for torturing the poor beast. The driver not only justifies his treatment of the dog, but argues that it is a good rabbit hunter because he keeps the pet hungry as well. Jorge demands that he let him purchase the dog, and takes the animal from under the cart, pulling him, at first somewhat against the dog’s will, toward him (an image that again repeats the film’s sublimated symbols of chains and nooses). Clearly, we recognize the futility of the act; a second later another car appears along the same road with yet another dog tied to its underside. Yet out of no self-gain, evidently simply out of kindness, Jorge has saved the pup and made him his own pet.

     This clearly does not represent a version of human love which we have just been pondering. But it does, nonetheless, hint at a kind of selfless behavior that does not simply reward one’s own ego. Presumably, as a pet in the estate manor, this mutt will at least have a more loving and less brutal life. And that very fact might point us in yet another direction.

      If only those ignorant Spanish censors had allowed Viridiana to enter Jorge’s room alone and close the door behind her, we might have been able to hope that, with her more visionary perception of life along with his practical, down-to-earth capabilities, the two might have been able to redeem each other, he fulfilling her sexual desires and she ministering to his spiritual emptiness.

   Well, Ramona too has good qualities, has kept this house in order for years. Perhaps the three of them can work it out!

Los Angeles, June 7, 2014

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