Banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican, Luis Bunuel's hilarious vision of life as a beggar's banquet is regarded by many as his masterpiece. In it, the young novice Viridiana does her utmost to maintain her Catholic principles, but her lecherous uncle and a motley assemblage of paupers force her to confront the limits of her idealism. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, this anticlerical free-for-all is as shocking today as ever.
While its so-called "blasphemies" have been tamed by the passage of time, Luis Buñuel's Viridiana remains a masterpiece for the ages. After 22 years in Mexico and the United States, Buñuel returned to his native Spain in 1961 with dictator Franco's permission to make any film he wanted, pending the approval of censors. Inspired by a minor saint named Viridiana and an erotic fantasy about making love to the Queen of Spain after drugging her, Buñuel proceeded to combine these elements into a characteristically provocative scenario about Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), a young woman about to become a nun, who leaves her convent to visit the decaying estate of her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), an eccentric widower who's immediately taken with Viridiana's close resemblance to his dead wife. Jaime's aborted attempt to seduce Viridiana (and his subsequent suicide) sets the film's second half in motion, as Viridiana assuages her guilt by turning Don Jaime's estate into a haven for the dispossessed--quite literally a "beggar's banquet" that culminates in one of the most indelible images in all of Buñuel: a staged recreation of da Vinci's "The Last Supper," with a cast of itinerant peasants as "disciples" in Buñuel's new world order--a cutting response to backward notions of progress.
Like any great film, Viridiana reveals its depth and detail through multiple viewings. The film is scathingly critical of Catholic hypocrisy and Franco's Spain (Don Jaime's estate is a direct reflection of the country's moribund state of sociopolitical decay), and its allegorical content was not lost on Spanish authorities, who banned the film (it wasn't shown in Spain until 1977) after it won the coveted Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In a closing stroke of genius, Buñuel skirted around his censors with a final scene even more provocative (in its subtle implications) than the sexually suggestive ending he'd originally filmed. With much to say about the conflicting nature of human desires, Viridiana may have softened over decades, but it's never lost its ability to spark debate, discussion, and rewarding analysis of Buñuel's directorial vision. --Jeff Shannon
On the DVD
The newly restored, high-definition digital transfer of Viridiana impressively maintains Criterion's exacting standards of audio-visual quality; it's a flawless transfer, with deep blacks and richly detailed clarity. The supplements include new (2006) video interviews with actress Silvia Pinal and Spanish cultural scholar Richard Porton; warmly revealing excerpts from the 1964 French TV series "Cineastes of Our Times," featuring an interview with Buñuel; and a 30-page booklet with an essay on Viridiana by Princeton film scholar Michael Wood, and a generous interview excerpt from the book Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel. --Jeff Shannon