Luis Buñuel grabbed worldwide attention in 1929 with his very first film, Un Chien Andalou, made with his close friend, Salvador Dali. The 17-minute short opened with a shot of an eyeball being sliced, grisly special effects for the time. With Dali and their friend, Federico García Lorca, he pioneered the use of surrealism in movie-making, a successful career – until the Spanish Civil War.
He packed up for California – to try his hand in Hollywood, but despite his his previous success, found nothing better than a job as a sound dubber. Frustrated, he travelled to Mexico, where he seemed locked in an endless stream of low-budget Spanish language films and destined for relative obscurity.
In 1961, General Franco, eager to be seen promoting Spanish culture, invited him to return to his homeland and offered him financial support to make his films in Spain. Buñuel made Viridiana, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1961 and was banned by both the Spanish government and the Vatican for its devious exploration of evil and, well, more evil. Buñuel never made another film in Spain, though he continued making films until the late 70’s, including Oscar Winner The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie in 1972 and nominee, That Obscure Object of Desire in 1978.
Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a beautiful young nun who hasn’t taken her final vows, pressured to leave the convent to visit her uncle and benefactor, the wealthy Don Jaime (Francisco Rabal). Struck by Viridiana’s resemblance to her late aunt, who died before consummating their marriage. Jaime becomes obsessed and, with the help of his housemaid, drugs and rapes her.
Viridiana believes she can never return to the convent now. She decides to stay and use her deeply held spiritual values to save the world on her own, starting with the local beggars and homeless. She soon discovers that these people cannot be saved – every nuance of their humanity has been devoured by poverty. Still, she is blind with disbelief when they ultimately turn on her. Buñuel’s genius is in the exposition of Viridiana – not the pious young woman she at first appears, but an arrogant sycophant who quite probably deserves her ultimate downfall.
Both Franco and the Catholic Church correctly perceived the film as a direct attack. Franco fired the Spanish Film Board for submitting the picture at Cannes and ordered all copies to be destroyed. Fortunately, a few were spared for us to relish today.