No one goes into a Buñuel film expecting to be enlightened by the kindness of human nature. Throughout his nearly 50 year career, Buñuel has created films that have scraped the bottom of humanity’s depraved nature, usually skewering the European Bourgeoisie of the post World War II era.
Roger Ebert, in an essay about Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) said that although Buñuel was cynical about human nature, he looked at his characters with amusement, not scorn. Such is the case in 1961’s Viridiana, lovingly restored by the Criterion Collection, a story of a woman who is just about to enter the convent only to see her ideals destroyed.
As the film begins, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is forced by her Mother Superior to pay one last visit to her uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) before she enters the convent. This is a journey Viridiana undertakes with much trepidation since she has no feelings for Don Jaime, a lonesome landowner who makes a fetish of his dead wife’s wedding gown. This is classic Buñuel, the landed gentry who is twisted by a sexual glitch. He makes Don Jaime’s lascivious nature known as we first see him admiring the legs of a young girl jumping rope. As Viridiana’s visit comes to a close, Don Jaime asks her to marry him, but when she refuses, he dresses her in the wedding gown, drugs her and almost rapes her before his conscience gets the better of him.
Rather than divulge more, the second half of the film concerns Viridiana’s attempts to convert the estate into a working farm. Also involved are Don Jaime’s estranged son and a cadre of beggars and cripples that Viridiana employs through Christian charity to work on the farm. A cripple, a drunk, a blind man, a leper, a thief, some whores and more, this kaleidoscope of beggars makes up much of the final act of the film. While Viridiana feels she is actually contributing to the improvement of society by housing, feeding and giving work to this unfortunate bunch, Buñuel’s own feelings on human nature soon overshadow the goodness of Viridiana.
Left alone for a day, the crew of vagabonds break into the farmhouse and serve up a real beggar’s banquet. But rather than have a civil meal, this feast erupts into an orgy of sexual advances, violence and destruction. Perhaps the most audacious and famous scene of the film is when the beggars line up behind the table in a faux version of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper only to have their photo “taken” by a woman who lifts her skirt towards the group.
In the book Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel,, the director insists this scene was not meant to be blasphemous as many critics at the time had decried it, but playful. “I don’t understand the indignation,” he said. “It is an old joke played by Spanish children. If someone’s rear end were sticking out, someone else would shout, ‘You’re taking my picture!’”
But Buñuel is too clever to be taken on just a topical level. Broken by the beggar’s destruction of the manor house, Viridiana’s path to ruin is complete. Buñuel’s view of the world is bleak. He thinks little of our attempts to change the course of human nature. Viridiana’s desire to improve the lives of the beggars (and in the larger course the condition of mankind) is naïve and ill-planned. The undercurrents of lechery, violence and theft are too strong to change. It is this realization, that the world is an ugly and unpredictable place that finally shatters Viridiana, stronger than any sin she could commit. But Bunuel does not damn the beggars, they are only doing what people do. His lens focuses on Viridiana whose once virginal state of idealism is tainted by the 'realness' of the world. It is only when we think that Eden really exists that we succumb to our own dreams, when that notion is firmly, and finally, destroyed.