After years in Mexican exile, Buñuel returned to his native Spain to make this dark account of corruption, which was immediately banned. A young nun, full of charity, kindness, and idealistic illusions about humanity, visits her uncle and tries to help some local peasants and beggars. But her altruism is greeted with ridicule and cruelty.
“[...] I decided to write my own screenplay about a woman I called Viridiana, in memory of a little-known saint ’d heard about when I was a schoolboy. As I worked, I remembered my old erotic fantasy about making love to the queen of Spain when she was drugged, and decided somehow to combine the stories.”
“During the shoot, I went to Madrid as my brother’s secretary, and, as always, Luis lived like an anchorite. Our apartment was on the seventeenth floor of the only skyscraper in the city, and he occupied the space like Simeon on his column. His deafness had gotten worse, and he saw only the people he couldn’t avoid seeing. We had four beds, but he slept on the floor, with a sheet and blanket and all the windows wide open. I remember him walking out of his study many times a day to enjoy the view: the mountains in the distance, Casa Campo, and the royal palace in between. He maintained that the light in Madrid was absolutely unique; in fact, he watched the sun come up every day we were there. He reminisced about his student days and seemed happy. Normally, we ate dinner -raw vegetables, cheese, and a good wine from Rioja – a steven o’clock, which is very early for Spain. At noon we always ate heavily in a good restaurant where our favorite meal was grilled suckling pig. (That’s when my cannibalism complex began, and my dreams of Saturn devouring his children.) At one point, Luis’s hearing suddenly improved, and we began to have company – old friends, students from the cinema institute, people working on the film. I have to confess that I didn’t like the Vindiana script, but my nephew Juan-Luis assured me that his father’s scenarios were one thing and what he did with them another, an observation that turned out to be absolutely correct. I watched several scenes being shot and was impressed by Luis’s patience. I never saw him lose his temper, and even when a take went badly, he simply redid it until it came out right. One of the twelve beggars in the film, the one called ‘the leper,’ was in fact a real beggar, and when Luis found out that he was being paid three times less than the others, he protested violently. The producers tried to pacify him by promising that on the last day of the shoot, the hat would be passed, but Luis only got angrier. Workers shouldn’t be paid by charitable contributions, he raged, demanding that the leper collect a paycheck every week, just like all the others.”
“In any case, the film created a considerable scandal in Spain, much like the one provoked by L’Age d’or; [...] although the film won the Golden Palm at Cannes, it was outlawed in Spain. The head of the cinema institute in Madrid, who’d gone to Cannes to accept the award, was forced into a premature retirement because of it. Finally, the affair created such a storm that Franco himself asked to see it, and according to what the Spanish producers told me, he found nothing very objectionable about it. After all, given what he’d seen in his lifetime, it must have seemed incredibly innocent to him, but he nonetheless refused to overturn his minister’s decision. In Italy, the film opened first in Rome, where it was well received, and then in Milan, where the public prosecutor immediately closed the theatre, impounded the reels, and sued me in court, where I was condemned to a year in jail if I so much as set foot in the country.
The whole affair still amazes me. I remember when Alatriste saw the film for the first time and had nothing to say about it. He saw it again in Paris, then twice in Cannes, and again in Mexico City, after which he rushed up to me, his face wreathed in smiles. ‘Luis!’ he cried happily. ‘You’ve done it! It’s wonderful! Now I understand it all!’ I had, and still have, no idea what he was talking about. It all seemed so simple to me – what was there to understand? On the other hand, when de Sica saw it in Mexico City, he walked out horrified and depressed. Afterwards, he and my wife, Jeanne, went to have a drink, and he asked her if I was really that monstrous, and if I beat her when we made love. ‘When there’s a spider that needs getting rid of,’ she replied, laughing, ‘he comes looking for me.’ (Once in Paris, in front of a movie theatre near my hotel, I saw a poster that said, ‘By Luis Bufiuel . . . the Cruelest Director in the World.’ Such foolishness made me very sad.)”
“Viridiana is both politically radical and philosophically cynical. As a representative of Catholic and Christian morality, Viridiana chooses to help others as a way of vanquishing her personal desires. But the beggars eventually constitute a symbolic return-of-the-repressed: when the superego-like Viridiana leaves the destitute to their own devices, their ids run rampant. Christianity, Buñuel suggests, doesn’t temper sin so much as fan its flames.”
Michael Joshua Rowin4
« Comme d’habitude – a dit Buñuel – l’idée du film m’est venue par une première image. J’ai pensé à un homme déjà âgé tenant entre ses bras une jeune fille sous l’effet d’un narcotique, complètement endormie, incapable de lui résister. Puis j’ai vu l’homme qui par remords se pendait. Et puis j’ai pensé que la jeune fille, devenue son héritière, recueillait des mendiants. Ainsi les images se sont-elles enchaînées dans ma tête, les unes après les autres, pour former une histoire. [...] C’est une religieuse franciscaine, du Moyen Âge – explique Buñuel à Georges Sadoul – et elle a inspiré, au Mexique, un tableau à l’ancien peintre Chavez [sic]. Il l’a représentée en train de contempler les attributs de la Passion : la croix, la couronne d’épines, les clous, etc. Le nom de Viridiana m’a aussi séduit parce qu’il faisait un titre très anti-commercial. »
- 1. Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath (London: Flamingo, 1985), 234.
- 2. Conchita Buñuel quoted by her brother in: Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath (London: Flamingo, 1985), 235.
- 3. ibidem, 238.
- 4. Michael Joshua Rowin, “Meaning and Madness: Close-Up on Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel,” Mubi Notebook, 17 June 2017.
- 5. Entretien de Buñuel avec Georges Sadoul (mai 1961), repris par celui-ci dans sa préface au découpage et dialogues du film, réédités dans le n° 428 de L’Avant-Scène Cinéma (janvier 1994), 8. Cité dans: Jacques Terrasa, « Les citations picturales dans Viridiana, de Luis Buñuel », Revue Du Caer, 1999.