Bunuel as an exilic filmmaker: the case of Viridiana

The primary subject to engage with when considering the nationality of Buñuel’s work is his tangential relationship with Spain, filming only La terra sin pan/Land without Bread (Buñuel, 1933), Viridiana (Buñuel, 1961) and Tristana (Buñuel, 1970) in his homeland. The film Viridiana is a salient example of this hybridity, due to his period of exile in Mexico beforehand, thereby approaching the film as an outsider to the nation of Spain. The film, however, was chosen ‘to represent Spain at the Cannes Film Festival with the intention of gaining international recognition by reclaiming Spain’s great exile, Luis Buñuel’ (Pavlovic, 2009:98). Prior to his return to Spain, Buñuel was granted Mexican citizenship, further enhancing his exile and displacement from his homeland.

Viridiana focuses primarily upon the modernity of Spain and the ‘Años de desarrollo’ concerning the boom in industry and tourism, but it still critiques the traditions of Spain and the social institutions of the Catholic Church and Franco’s regime. The film adhered to his message and radical political positioning in terms of middle-class morality, which the auteur himself regarded as immoral. One must fight it. It is a morality founded on our most unjust social institutions – religion, fatherland, family culture – everything that people call the pillars of society’ (Buñuel, in Edwards, 1991:32). The characters in the film are opposed to these essentialist views and beliefs upheld by the Franco dictatorship, and in particular the character of Don Jaime embodies Buñuel’s view of Spain from his position in exile. This definition of Spanish morality, which Buñuel explicitly attacks, functions as his ‘ “site of struggle” and…potential social transformation’ (Harlow, in Naficy, 2001:11). His struggle and internal exile are embodied within the characters and influences their actions.

The character of Don Jaime epitomizes the dark introspective Spain, representing an antiquated and essentialist Spain under Franco rule, whereas the character of Jorge, the illegitimate son of Don Jaime, represents the modernity of the future Spain. The death of Don Jaime, who commits the Catholic sin of suicide, by using the skipping rope, suggests the incompatibility of youth with the older generation. His death represents the end of the patriarchal influence and symbolizes the end of the dictatorship. The anachronistic property, which Jorge inherits after Don Jaime’s death, is subjected to the process of modernization and the installation of electricity in the house, thereby reflecting the situation of Spain in dire need of modernization. Notably, the two male characters symbolize the Manichean opposites of Spanish society, tradition versus modernity, which further reinforces the notion of a patriarchal and male-orientated Spanish society.

The character of Viridiana is a novice nun, who attempts to maintain her Catholic principles, thereby embodying the absurd anachronism and theocracy of Spain; a country ruled by one religion, Catholicism. According to Buñuel,

‘Religion permeated all aspects of our daily lives. […] I’ve often wondered why Catholicism has such a horror of sexuality. […] Ironically, this implacable prohibition inspired a feeling of sin which for me was voluptuous. […] Surely the powerful sexual repression of my youth reinforces this connection’ (Buñuel, 1994:12 and 14-15).

Religion and Catholicism consequently plays a pivotal role within Buñuel’s corpus of films, but, since Viridiana is produced directly within the Spanish context, it provides an explicit critique of the importance of the Catholic Church within Spanish society. The character of Viridiana transforms ‘from one model of femininity that is typically open to Spanish women, to its polar opposite’ (Jordan and Allinson, 2005: 156). The archetypal female character has ties with religion; she commences the film in a convent, and has a motherly quality, represented by the comforting of her dying uncle. After the death of her uncle, Don Jaime, Viridiana is no longer repressed by the patriarchal regime, but she continues to be repressed by Catholicism. The discourse of Catholicism is represented through the notion of charity, since Viridiana creates her own Christian utopia by inviting a troop of beggars to share her inherited household. She assumes the role as the protector of the beggars, hence reinstating and re-incorporating a level of repressive power, which displays that Viridiana remains a product of her cultural environment and does not wish to change and modernize. The carnivalesque scene, in which the beggars’ revolt against their authoritative power, reinforces Buñuel’s disillusionment with religion and his perception of the failure of the charitable mission. The revolt of the beggars additionally references and parodies the Christian imagery of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, since the beggars adhere to a Sadian version of the disciples attending Jesus at The Last Supper and demolish this high culture image of Catholic art. The beggars attempt to rape and deflower the authoritative patriarchal and virginal figure of Viridiana; further reinforcing the auteur’s fervent desire to highlight the requirement for social and political change of the contemporary anachronistic and clerical autocratic Spain. By engaging with elements of high culture, the image of The Last Supper and the beggars dancing to Handel’s ‘Hallelujah chorus’, Buñuel is addressing the educated spectator, who lives according to this high cultural standard is false and disillusioned, since the reality, embodied by the beggars, is, in fact, the polar opposite. Religion is consequently regarded by Buñuel as repressive and ‘a primary hindrance to human liberation’ (Mellen, 1978:11) and to the progress of humanity. The final scene of Viridiana ends with the characters of Viridiana, Jorge and his wife Ramona sitting around a table playing cards, which has been interpreted as a ménage-à-trois. This adheres to a liberation of the character from the repressive grasp of religion, thus marking a freedom, which fits into the Edward Said’s (Fuentes, 2004:163) framework of the exiled figure.  The film Viridiana, however,marks the internal exile of Buñuel due to ‘restrictions, deprivations, and censorship in totalitarian countries’ (Naficy, 2001:11), which have been imposed upon the figure of the auteur. Viridiana received a scandalous reception on release from both within Spain and the Franco regime and from the Vatican, due to the film’s blasphemous and sacrilegious nature and thus the promoting of an anti-catholic message. The inclusion and abuse of pious symbols of the Catholic faith, for example the burning of the crown of thorns and the beggars re-enacting The Last Supper by Da Vinci, the incestuous necrophilic act, which was not ultimately consummated between Viridiana and her uncle Don Jaime, and the original final scene of sexual relations between Viridiana and her cousin, contributed to the film’s banning and shunning in Spain until 1977 (Pavlovic, 2009:99). Higson (2002:53) suggests that, when analyzing national cinema, it is necessary to take into account the films that are consumed by the population, thereby becoming part of the national psyche. Therefore, this enforcement back into exile and the inhibiting of the screening of the film in Spain provides further evidence of Buñuel as an international or universal auteur, rather than a quintessential Spanish auteur.


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