Tuesday, February 3, 2015

DVR Diary: VIRIDIANA (1961)

Once upon a time, a novice nun was sent to visit her closest-living relative before she took her vows. The relative proved a dissolute, unhappy person; memories of a lost loved one resulted in suicide. Where have we heard this one before? If I had done my cinematic duty earlier and watched Luis Bunuel's film sooner, I'd have asked that question when I saw Ida on the big screen last fall. I'm happy to see, after a Google search, that I'm not the only person to notice the resemblances between the two movies. Coincidence? Hard to say, since it's hard to see how Ida is a commentary on Viridiana. Admittedly, we can take the parallels further to see how, just as Ida spends a night as a worldly woman in sympathetic emulation of her aunt, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) tries to take on the role of her uncle (Fernando Rey) as a benevolent landowner. Both films arguably are concerned with failed utopias: the drab communism of 1960s Poland in Ida (that film is set approximately at the time of Viridiana's release) and Viridiana's own utopia of charity to the poor. Both novices are repelled or, in Viridiana's case, thwarted by the vulgarity of the world, and while Ida appears to flee back to the convent her Spanish precursor seems to crumple passively in defeat, a kind of prisoner of her own inheritance.

Viridiana was a scandal when it first appeared at Cannes and was banned in Spain for many years afterward. This was the reaction of a conservative (if not fascist) regime to perceived sacrilege, but I wonder whether viewers unfamiliar with the history of Spain or Bunuel's anticlerical views might see Viridiana as a conservative film. The film's second act deals with Viridiana's mission to the local poor, who reward her generosity much as the Three Stooges might. These twelve (or so) stooges are stupid, crass and irrepressible; neither their various afflictions nor their poverty redeem them. Viridiana's error is either to think of them as innocents or to think them capable of spiritual uplift. I admit that I don't know how these bums fit in Bunuel's worldview, but I'm pretty sure the director isn't inviting us to sympathize with them or take pleasure in their violation of the family heirlooms. We've identified too much with poor Viridiana for that. She's been abused by her uncle, who had the hots for her because she resembled his wife who died on their wedding night. There's a certain pathos, or else its opposite, in the trajectory of the wedding dress, which the uncle had treasured and later intended for Viridiana to wear, but ends up draping a drunken bum during Bunuel's slapstick parody of Leonardo's Last Supper. Perhaps Bunuel thinks that the proper final destination for a decadent aristocrat's fetish object. For what it's worth, here's another parallel with Ida: in the later film, Ida tries on her aunt's shoes, teetering on the unfamiliar heels; in Viridiana it's not the title character but her uncle who tries on a woman's shoe, his wife's. Make of that what you will.

The big difference between Viridiana and Ida is that Bunuel is a satirist, while there's little evidence of satire or humor of any sort in the Polish film. Viridiana is a sort of Candide figure, continually clobbered by reality, though not as violently as her Voltairean forebear is, until she's hopefully cured of her idealism. This sort of satire knows neither left nor right; it doesn't satirize one thing to promote another, but sees everything as folly in the face of human nature. Its contempt for idealism guaranteed the antagonism of both the established church and an authoritarian regime, but that doesn't make Bunuel the opposite of either. There is less compassion for Viridiana than the admittedly frosty Ida has for its protagonist. Does this difference make one film better than the other? My snap judgment is that Ida is the more novelistic and humane film, but that's not the only basis for judgment. Will Ida stand the test of fifty years as Viridiana has? Let's compare notes in 2065 -- I'll probably have to trust you to remember what I wrote -- for by then we may have a better idea of what these parables of midcentury disillusion mean in the long term.

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