Time Out New York Project: Issue #708, April 23-April 29, 2009
Dir. Luis Buñuel. 1961. N/R. 90mins. In Spanish, with subtitles. Silvia Pinal, Fernando Rey, Francisco Rabal.
For Luis Buñuel, impiety is a genetic trait and an essential facet of his art. That his work also lifts the spirit—imparting a delirious sensation of the divine—is a most welcome incongruity, one exemplified by his prizewinning 1961 effort, Viridiana.
It’s as scabrous a film as they come, following virginal postulant Viridiana (Pinal) on a mother-superior-mandated visit to her reclusive uncle (Rey) at his country estate. An incestuous attraction is semi-acted on, a suicide by jump rope follows, and Viridiana quashes her guilt by ministering to a gaggle of rowdy, discontented vagrants. That might be enough incident and implication for a whole film, but Buñuel knows no restraint. In the infamous dinner-scene centerpiece, he profanes both the Last Supper and the “Hallelujah Chorus,” then goes on to detail Viridiana’s absolute loss of faith.
It’s not so much horrifying as it is restorative, a purge of organized religion’s iconographic outer trappings in an effort to bring forth the gospel truth and resultant challenges of a flesh-and-blood existence. The film climaxes with Viridiana tentatively exploring her newfound permanence; it’s a testament to Buñuel’s enduring artistry and insight that a sexual euphemism comes off as the sanest and most sacrosanct words spoken. Amen.—Keith Uhlich