Sunday, January 9, 2011

#332: Viridiana

(Luis Buñuel, 1961)

There aren't many accomplished directors with lengthy oeuvres who are best known for shorts, and Buñuel is probably the most obvious (others would be Jean Vigo, Maya Deren, and um Chuck Jones of course). Catapulted to fame as a young man with his two collaborations with Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou and the near-feature L'Age d'Or, Buñuel was forced to leave Spain during the civil war pre-World War II and didn't really rise to international prominence again until Viridiana in 1961. Over the next few decades, Buñuel would make a number of well-regarded features - including Belle de Jour and future Criterion viewings The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire - but it's hard to eclipse the reputation of Un Chien Andalou, arguably the most famous short film in cinema history, and the work every film student sees before they even know what a tracking shot is.

But beginning with Viridiana, Buñuel had a run of films that are highly regarded, nearly all of which I have not seen. So here we go. Viridiana is a satire without comedy, a dark and angry film that retains a lightness by relying on Buñuel's unique absurdity. The film is centered on a young woman about to take her vows as a nun when her uncle she hardly knows compels her to come visit him. There, he goes about trying to convince and then trick the woman into giving up her vows and staying with him.

The movie was banned in Spain until the end of Franco's reign, and really it's no surprise. There are two attempted rapes, one burned crown of thorns, a nun corrupted, and a beggar's banquet turned into the last supper (and then subjected to a woman's flashing). The whole movie is basically about how you can try to do good all you want, but people will shit on you anyway, but Buñuel doesn't particularly seem to care that much. It's like if at the end of Schindler's List, instead of that shitty bookend with the grave site, Spielberg had just showed himself, turned to the camera, and said "Meh, whatevs." (Note: this is an extreme example. Note 2: That would have been amazing.)

Viridiana does end up being entertaining because of this attitude, but I can't say I really connected with any of the characters, and I felt like the plotting was a bit disjointed. I don't think this century will displace the last century in terms of filmmaking - there just isn't as far to go anymore - but I think the one area in which the 20th century canon will start to feel stale is the constant specter of class over movies from the middle of the century. It's not to say that class doesn't still matter, but I think the way in which it was dealt does not feel modern or speak to the intellectual zeitgeist of this generation. Viridiana (and I'm afraid other Buñuel films to come) is one of those movies that just doesn't seem in touch with current artistic or progressive thought. This doesn't make it a bad movie, but it makes it more of an artifact in context than a living breathing work of art.

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