Viridiana (1961)

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Third time with Luis Buñuel after UCA and The Exterminating Angel.

Despite finding small fault with TEA for its only patchy bizarreness, I think I prefer V for burying its surreality inside a measured and economical plot. Images here – like the frequent comparisons of feet (the uncle bashfully toeing a sandy path, later in his wife’s wedding shoes, V’s milkily seductive legs), the inevitable dogs tied to wooden carts, even the knife inside the crucifix – retain the vivid imprint of LB’s imagination but tend to illustrate rather than puncture the tale. I don’t know much about LB’s developing artistic association with Surrealism but we’re certainly a long way from his and Dali’s desire, in UCA, to stage unconnected and uninterpretable images; V weaves a rich but surprisingly understated narrative about the Catholic Church and its morality and the social dynamics of Franco’s Spain.

That said, the film is still strikingly symbolic. The uncle interprets V’s somnambulistic exchange of knitting wool for dustpan ashes as a prophecy of his death and her penitence. It seems, though, that she is repenting on his behalf: he claims to have neglected charitable impulses for fear of ridicule, so V turns his house – after his shocking, even vindictive suicide – into a shelter for the destitute. Her perceived fall from grace (“I have nothing to reproach myself for but I have changed”), after his gothically perverted advances on her innocence, compels her to abandon her convent. Yet her embrace of secularity is itself a kind of fall, as the carnivalesque cavalcade of drunkards, lepers, paupers and miscreants abuses and pollutes her almost Winstanlean utopianism.

Don’t quite know what to make of the juxtaposed crescendos of fervent ave marias and manual labouring, the latter induced by the Uncle’s son to rejuvenate the house with modern technology. There are obviously superficial comparisons of “work”, but in closeup the builders appear almost destructive, while the supplicants harmonise in an unsettlingly rapturous drone. Perhaps a suggestion of kindred reconstructive powers: spiritual and architectural regeneration for house and state.

The little girl’s presence is equally elusive and suggestive. At the beginning she’s a kind of sprite, a meddlesome presence calling both host and guest out on their dishonesty. She’s later given a kind of occult agency or precognition: her testimony to the apparition of a black bull through her closet go unheeded; after the death of the uncle, a servant confiscates her skipping rope, berating her for sacrilegious jollity under the haunted tree and warning that “If something awful happens it will be your fault.” A pauper is later seen wearing the rope as a belt – it appears that she herself has opened the door to a beast.

I liked the bit when the cat was very clearly and inelegantly chucked, from off-camera, onto the rat.

The climax is a minor masterpiece: a gradual devolution, among the guests, from a tentative investigation of the house to a riotous bacchanal. I liked the editing in TEA; here the escalations are stitched together hilariously, like the kind of through-your-fingers omnishambles I associate with Father Ted or Black Books. The Last Supper photograph is triumphant; the blind man smashing the table is heart-stopping. The way this Bakhtinian depravity melts rapidly into a second, icy-cold attempt to rape V is equally shocking – a sobering realisation. The way she is finally hung out to dry, her crown of thorns immolated and her hair let seductively loose in a suggestive concession to her rapaciously masculine cousin, constructs a fittingly brisk, uncompromising and muted conclusion.

Utterly unhackneyed, which says as much about what has come since as it does about what came before.

8

 

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