Luis Bunuel loves beautiful, chaste women. More important than that, Bunuel loves being cruel to beautiful, chaste women. And by cruel I mean stripping them down until they are emotionally naked (sometimes physically) and robbing them of their pious beliefs by tossing them into a cruel world of men that only wants to shatter their virtues and then toss them aside. I’m basing this on having seen Tristana, Belle de Jour, and now…Viridiana. In all of these, Bunuel practices a kind of intellectual rape on his leading female, systematically breaking down their preliminary resolves (sometimes religious, sometimes sociological) and then watching them squirm.
But Viridiana may be his most heinous assault of the three in that 1) it involves an actual woman of the cloth (read nun) 2) its violations this time are repeated, physical, and in no way consensual and 3) the title heroine is given no mental or emotional devices with which to fight back. At least Deneuve had dislocation as a coping mechanism for her repeated call girl interludes in Belle de Jour. And in Tristana, she was allowed the freedom and mental devices to turn Fernando Rey’s own theories on freedom and sexuality against him. Here the leading female, Silvia Pinal, is not given so much as a rape whistle or a can of mace to use against her attackers, which in the end is really just Bunuel and his relentless world view.
The story follows Viridiana, a young nun hopeful to join the convent. But before strapping on the habit for good, she’s called away to her uncle’s estate (the always fine Fernando Rey) for a visit beforehand. The uncle, though refined, rich and worldly, turns out to be nothing more than a common scoundrel and immediately tries getting under her chastity belt, claiming how much she looks like her dead aunt. Wow, if that doesn’t turn a girl on, what will?
Apparently nothing in Virdinia’s case. So Uncle is forced to use the 1950s Spanish equivalent of Roofies to drug her, do some heavy petting while she’s asleep, and then inform her when she awakens that she’s been violated and can never return to the convent the same girl she once was. Virdiniana is shattered but still resists, so the uncle hangs himself with a child’s jump rope leaving this on his niece’s conscience, possibly a crueler trick than the earlier groping session.
Though she can longer return to the convent, Viridiana decides that she still must follow the path of god and decides to open the estate to the poor as a sign of good faith. But, this being Bunuel, the poor are a group of freeloading beggars, cripples, and disease victims just as savage as Uncle in their own way, though maybe a little bit more honest about it. They proceed to plunder the estate (and later Viridiana). At the same time, the uncle’s son (read: Virdiana’s cousin) shows up with designs on the estate as well as what’s under Viridiana’s frock.
Like father, like son. Like Bunuel.
Honestly, I can’t say I enjoyed Virdiana as much as the others in his "victimized women" series. For one thing, Pinal is no Deneuve, who always manages to retain some kind of dignity and blank beauty under the strains of Bunuel’s cruel narratives giving them an added weight. Perhaps it’s because Viridiana is more of a symbol than a full-fledged character in this, standing for faith, the Church, all things religious. This movie was banned at the time, and it’s easy to see why. Bunuel’s attacks on religion are as blatant as his male predators’ designs on Virdiana. He even spells it out visually in one infamous scene with a recreation of "The Last Supper" with a group of beggars and lepers and whores subbing for J.C. and the apostles.
This may go over well in Language of Film 101, but for me it felt a little obvious. Believe me, I’ve got no love for the Church, but at a certain point you’re stooping to their propaganda level if you’re just taking their icons and just subverting them for subversion’s sake.