This week’s short was a little Kids In The Hall skit called “The DTs”, which involved a man having to kick his tea habit. It’s kind of bizarre and features a giant hallucinated taunting teabag, and it was relevant because the film to be presented was both avant-garde and British. What better to go along with avant-garde British films than KitH and tea?
Sadly, due to technical difficulties revolving around non-region-1 DVDs, we were unable to view the intended feature presentation (Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract), and the connection between the short and the film, however tenuous it might have been to start with, was severed entirely.
Fortunately, our presenter was able to run home for an alternate title — and as might be expected, it turned out to be an excellent film in its own right, and worthy of being the feature presentation. Our scab picture was Luis Buñuel’s 1961 film Viridiana, which stars Silvia Pinal as the title character, a young novitiate who is about to take her vows. Viridiana’s last remaining relative, her Uncle Don Julio (husband of her mother’s late sister), has been her only means of financial support to this point, and despite their having nearly no relationship at all, he requests that Viridiana come to visit him before cloistering herself off from the world. She is, to say the least, reluctant as they have never been remotely close, but Mother Superior convinces her it is the right thing to do, and Viridiana heads off on her final jaunt outside the convent.
As in most films, things don’t go exactly as planned. While Viridiana has some fun out on her uncle’s property trying to milk cows and watching the maid’s daughter jump rope, Don Julio turns out to be a bit of an old lecher. Viridiana, you see, looks just like her late aunt (who conveniently, died on her wedding night) and Tio Julio is getting the old vibe back after a couple of decades of sexual frustration. Normally, an initiate nun is not your easiest target, however.
He even goes so far as to pull the old take-out-the-wedding-dress-and-try-it-on schtick, but it doesn’t fit, and even if it did, it would definitely make him look fat. So, on Viridiana’s last day with him, he decides that she should play dress-up instead of him. For the second time in the film, Viridiana reluctantly agrees to go along with something she knows is a poor idea.
I’m not quite sure what she thought could possibly go right here. The answer, of course, is “nothing”, as Tio Julio tries to take advantage of her not-quite-nunned state to propose a new career: marriage. Viridiana is less than pleased with this suggestion and denies her uncle outright. But, never fear, he’s got a backup plan, because he has had his trusty maid Ramona drug Viridiana’s drink. Naughty Ramona.
After Viridiana is good and passed out, Tio Julio whisks her off to the bedroom and the creepy kissing commences. Kind of like Sleeping Beauty, except he’s no Prince Charming, and she doesn’t wake up. But, in a final act of sensibility (it will be his last) Tio Julio declines to consummate the coma.
Thing is, in a last ditch effort to keep her (and her frosty liquid helium love) in his thrall, when she wakes he informs her that he has, indeed violated her maidenhood. Gotta stay now, he tells her, since you can’t go back to the convent. She decides to go back to the convent anyway. While cleaning the sheets, Ramona (you remember Ramona, the naughty maid who helped drug our protagonist?) discovers that Don Julio is lying about the whole violation thing but decides to say nothing at all to Viridiana. Because she’s a real sweetheart like that.
But, like all best-laid plans, Viridiana is unable to even get on the train back to the nunnery — she is stopped short by the local authorities, informing her that Don Julio has done the honorable thing and hung himself with Ramona’s daughter’s jump rope. Viridiana returns to the scene of the death and eventually finds that she and a previously unacknowledged bastard son Jorge have inherited Don Julio’s estate. She decides to stay.
Under the misconception that she is no longer virginal enough to join the convent (a misconception that Ramona, of course, never disabuses her of) Viridiana decides to go Cinderella Man on us. No, not like the Russell Crowe movie, beating people bloody (though it would have made for an interesting twist) but rather like the Rush song (“He held up his riches to challenge the hungry”). So while Jorge and his mistress move in and he tries his hand at turning the wasted estate productive again, Viridiana takes it upon herself to gather the indigent of the local town up and turn the estate into a homeless shelter for the wicked and ungrateful.
Jorge, in the meantime, tires of his mistress largely because he’s lusting after his cousin (“not by blood”, he says to the mistress, as if that somehow excuses his kicking her out), who doesn’t seem to like him any more than she liked his father.
Well, outside of the fact that the homeless folks spend all of their time infighting and being completely ungrateful for their newfound diet and religious education, everything seems to be going OK, at least until the entire non-indigent household decides to go in to the city. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, is how the saying goes, and sure enough as soon as everybody in charge is out for a while, the lunatics take over the asylum (to string a few metaphors together). They break into the main building of the estate and begin, in increasingly drunken revelry, to prepare themselves a feast. Naturally, they start out with little regard for other people’s property, and by the time they’re completely trashed, so is the house.
Ultimately, this culminates in the revelers reenacting some obscure painting while the dulcet strands of Handel’s Messiah blare from a gramophone in the background. The whole scene is set up with what I can only assume is a nasty pun in Spanish – one of the female diners suggests that the group pose for a picture. “With what camera?” asks another, getting the response, “The one my parents gave me.” Well, they all set themselves up, and the photographer sets up in front of them and on the count of “cheese!” blatantly lifts up her skirt at them. There may have been a flash, but I’m not sure the lens cap was off I’m not sure the shutter opened I think the film got over-exposed.
Well, unfortunately for all involved, the lords of the manor return home early to find the party breaking up. A few stragglers accost Jorge, hit him over the head and tie him up, then proceed to try to finish Tio Julio’s job on Viridiana. Without giving her a roofie first, even. Well, Jorge comes to, and while he’s unable to untie himself, he does manage via a substantial monetary bribe to convince one of the assailants to bludgeon the other to death, one presumes before succeeding in his unholy desires.
Well, that’ll teach you to be nice to people.
Viridiana is left a broken and useless shell of a person, bereft of hope and faith (through misguided charity), and the final scene presages her ultimate decay into worldliness (a tranformation her Uncle could not successfully pull off) by implying a menage-a-trois between herself and Jorge and Ramona (who have already become lovers).
It’s a moving film, and while I’m told that Buñuel’s intention was to make the Catholic Church look bad (the film was immediately banned, I understand), it doesn’t appear to me that the Catholic Church comes off as anything other than the victim here. It’s the poor and needy who really get the bum rap. Gee, thanks for all the food and lodging…would you like that knife in the cervical, thoracic, or lumbar vertebrae?