Luis Buñuel

Viridiana is probably my favorite Buñuel film, but…

I keep thinking I must be wrong.

As with Wordsworth, I keep going back to Buñuel in the knowledge that others I know and love see something I don’t. There must be a way in, a way of thinking about or approaching this material that makes me think it fresh rather than tired, daring rather than petty, trenchant rather than petulant.

Or, perhaps it is just my personal history (or lack of it) that leaves me probing the surfaces of Buñuel’s works like blocks of marble, trying to feel my way around to the human portrait that lies beneath. Am I not Roman Catholic enough to “get it”? Not Latin enough? Surely it’s not a case of my being not cynical enough? I mean, I find the contemptous light to which everyone in Buñuel’s universe gets held up to misanthropic and tedious, and that’s coming from  a man who loves Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Andrew Sarris’s own essay on Buñuel, which he includes as a preface to Kenji Kanesaka’s 1962 interview with the director, is over twice as long as the interview it prefaces. Maybe that’s appropriate; there is something a little surreal yet ordinary about this chapter:

–Kanesaka begins the interview by congratulating Buñuel for the success of Viridiana at Cannes, then goes on to admit he hasn’t actually seen the film.

–Sarris makes a cryptic comparison between  Buñuel and Robert Bresson, saying the former lacks Bresson’s “sensibility” and the latter lacks  Buñuel’s “force” (71).

— Buñuel, when asked about Japanese film, calls Akira Kurosawa “superficial”(73) but admits to having only seen Rashomon, The Gate of Hell, and The Seven Samurai.

–Kanesaka asks  Buñuel if Robinson Crusoe would be the picture of his he most recommends others to see.

Sarris suggests that  Buñuel was “fossilized” by his own legend, trapped by early success and an unwillingness of his defenders to confront the uneven nature of his career. Certainly, I liked Viridiana best of the  Buñuel films I’ve seen–Un Chien Andalu, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Simon of the Desert, and Nazarin–though I’m hard pressed to say why.

Nazarin is another film where others see depth and I only see caricature.
Nazarin is another film where others see depth and I only see caricature.

Several of the themes in Viridiana echo Nazarin:  Buñuel’s difficult to hide animosity (I think it more than just ambivalence) toward the religious characters, the betrayal by those whom have been best served connoting a distrust of the masses, and an inability to distinguish between spiritual and physical purity that leads to a need to deface the former in order to justify the leering attitude towards the latter.

Silvia Pinal is sexy-gorgeous, particularly in the first half of the film, and perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is the sympathy it engenders for Don Jaime in comparison to the two peasants. Both try to rape Viridiana–I was under the impression the latter succeeded, but the interviews on the Criterion DVD muddied this point–but while the latter is an ugly thing we wholeheartedly want to see stopped, there is an element of complicity cultivated in the depiction of the former, particularly in an early shot in which she removes her stockings.

I wasn’t surprised to find out from the commentary track that  Buñuel allegedly had a foot fetish–his eroticizing of Pinal in the early scenes really complicates our subsequent response to the character throughout the rest of the film. The more iconically good she is the less desirable she becomes. I’d have to rewatch the film to see if the way Pinal is shot affects this or whether it is created through performance. I’m convinced on some levels that by the time the second rape attempt is filmed Viridiana has become a less desirable character and so we see it (ironically) as more brutal and brutish than we do Don Jaime’s attempt. Her sexiness is in some ways tied to her innocence to the extent that there is an unconsciousness about their sexuality that the sexually uninitiated can convey. This obliviousness is what Don Jaime robs her of, and in some ways it is a loss no less deeply felt or observed for the fact that (apparently) he doesn’t consummate his lust while she is unconscious. Viridiana doesn’t know that, though; Don Jaime initially claims that he did rape her.

Simon of the Desert being tempted by the devil.
Simon of the Desert being tempted by the devil.

The way I read the latter half of the film is that Viridiana sublimates almost all her emotions into being ministerial and that the self-consciousness with which she uses religion to repress what she feels (both desire and anger) is what makes us ambivalent towards her. If the life of chastity (or poverty, for that matter) is a genuine renunciation of that which has been consciously felt (or desired) but turned from, it is admirable. If it is a refuge from one’s fear at what one doesn’t want to feel or doesn’t know how to handle, it is a different matter altogether. Similarly, if one through religion finds a way through abuse to a place of forgiveness, one is admirable. If one reflexively refuses to be angry and represses all those feelings one might not be able to forgive, than one’s religion becomes a bar to rise to rather than a foundation to stand on.

Then again, I could just be giving  Buñuel too much credit. In his interview, he distinguishes between the art film and the commercial film:

At the same time, films are made to please the culturally inferior masses, who are so either for social or economic reasons. Thus such films are apt to be superficial, stereotyped, easy to understand, and usually kowtow to the morals and politics of the different governments. This could be a good definition of the ‘commercial’ film.

In other words, Buñuel may just have the revolutionary’s hatred of anything symbolic of orthodoxy or institutional powers and structures. He may just be taking joy at symbolically debasing a symbol of that which he hates. There is, unquestionably a whiff of elitism that permeates  Buñuel’s attitude towards the masses in his films and description of them in his interview. Maybe he’s having the last laugh on me by showing how lust and jeering are stronger than innocence and goodness by demonstrating how easy it is to get people who claim to care about the latter to join in the former.

I once said of Alan Ball that I thought the modus operandi of his films was to paint someone or something as ridiculous until the audience sneered and then scold it for being so intolerant, followed by painting something else as good or decent or admirable until the audience cheered, then mock it for being so gullible and naive. Perhaps that is a root cause of my ambivalence about Buñuel’s: I can’t figure out how to get myself to an appropriate response, because I can’t exactly fathom what an appropriate response would be. Should I like Viridiana, Nazarin, and Simon and feel contempt for the world around them that needs to cut them down and destroy them? Or should I celebrate their demises, physical and spiritual, as the defeat of one more imperfect person that had the chutzpah to try to be good? Should I think there is nothing to choose between them?

I guess (no I don’t guess, I know) there is technical skill at play in the precision and force (to borrow Sarris’s word) in the way Buñuel can twist the knife like nobody else. I’ve just never finished a screening of one of his films happier to be alive than when I started.

“Luis Buñuel.” Interviews With Film Directors. Ed. Andrew Sarris. New York: Avon, 1967. 65-74.

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