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The Criterion Collection: Viridiana

Coming as it does on the heels of the Vatican's censure of The Da Vinci Code (2006), The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961) makes the case that such denouncements are nothing new. Having left his native Spain in 1939 to work in Mexico and the U.S., the filmmaker was an outspoken critic of the Franco regime. When he returned from his self-imposed exile at Franco's invitation to make Viridiana, many saw his choice as a betrayal of the cause. But the release of the film became an international scandal — after winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes, the film was denounced by the Catholic church, banned in Spain, and the official responsible for sending the film to Cannes was fired. However, Buñuel and his picture were embraced by his adopted country of Mexico, and the movie was released amid charges of blasphemy, cementing the director's international reputation and kicking off a period of enthusiastic creativity. Whether or not Viridiana is actually profane is debatable — but it's definitely an angry film, a slap in the face of Franco and his cohorts, and one that examines the darker side of the human condition.

Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is an earnest young nun attempting to retain her virtue in a world seemingly determined to corrupt her faith. Reluctantly leaving the convent, she visits her uncle in the country, prepared to remain focused on God — she sleeps on the floor and prays to a crucifix, crown of thorns, and nails that she places on her pillow. But Viridiana is quite beautiful (Buñuel's camera lingers on her legs as she strips off her black stockings) and her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), becomes smitten with her. He insists that she wear his dead wife's wedding dress and, assisted by his housekeeper, drugs her with plans to rape her. Don Jaime fails to follow through with the act but, to blackmail her into staying with him, he tells Viridiana that he made love to her while she was unconscious. His own guilt over this act compels Don Jaime to hang himself — and Viridiana, blaming herself for his actions, must find ways to assuage her own guilt. She uses her uncle's home as a shelter, inviting homeless beggars to live with her — but her attempts at compassion are met with contempt by her Mother Superior and by Don Jaime's son, the new owner of the estate. In the film's most infamous scene, the family leaves for the night and the beggars, left to themselves, have a feast. After mockingly recreating Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," one puts on a record of Handel's "Messiah" and then dances, wearing Don Jaime's dead wife's wedding veil. The evening progresses with drunken dancing, fornication, and brawling. The family returns to be attacked, and Viridiana is, again, almost raped. The charges of blasphemy against Viridiana came because of the Last Supper scene ,and because of the film's many instances of sensuality involving the luminous Pinal. But really, it's easy to see why Franco and the Vatican found the film so appalling — Buñuel's cynical message is that life is messy, people are slaves to their appetites, and that acts of mercy do nothing to change the human condition. And yet, after all of that, the picture concludes on an optimistic note, albeit one that the Church wouldn't appreciate — Viridiana gives up her novitiate's attire, brushes out her long hair, and joins her cousin for a game of cards. It's an act that would seem utterly banal under other circumstances, but here indicates that Viridiana's made the choice to be a part of, rather than a party to, the world outside of the convent.

The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Viridiana is very good, although it's apparent that the source-print was is terrible condition — while the contrast is wonderful, with deep blacks and rich gray tones, even with the most meticulous digital clean-up there are lines and some scratches. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is good, although not superb, with some volume inconsistencies and noticeable ambient noise through much of the film. Extras include a new interview with Pinal in which she reminisces about working with Buñuel (15 min.), an analysis of the film by writer/editor Richard Porton (13 min.), clips devoted to Buñuel from the French television show "Cinéastes de Notre Temps" (37 min.), the U.S. theatrical trailer, and a 30-page booklet containing an essay by author Michael Wood and an interview with Buñuel excerpted from their book Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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