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FILM : 'Viridiana': Get Thee to a Nunnery

May 09, 1991|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

A would-be nun is hounded by sex until she's almost beside herself in "Viridiana," the movie that marked Luis Bunuel's return to Spain after almost a quarter-century exile in the United States and Mexico.

Bunuel had agreed to come back to his native Spain after assurances that the country was on the path to "modernization," both socially and artistically, even though Generalissimo Francisco Franco's fascist government was still in power. Franco wanted Spain's most famous filmmaker back on home ground, making movies about national life. Franco reasoned that Bunuel's return would help to clean up the country's repressive image and boost the tourist trade, among other things.

Franco was nervous about Bunuel's arrival, and for good reason. When the movie was released in 1961, it proved to be a creepily satirical, insinuatingly erotic and often bizarre morality tale that questioned spiritual belief and basic human passions. "Viridiana," which screens at the Wilshire Auditorium on Friday night, was promptly condemned by the Roman Catholic Church and Franco as sacrilegious but went on to win the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival anyway.

It is disturbing, almost oppressively so, with the characteristically mesmerizing imagery of a director most known for his work in surrealism. When the lovely and virginal Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is told to visit her aging uncle (Fernando Rey) on the eve of taking her final vows, she is sent to a haunted house of decaying memories and desires. As filmed by cinematographer Jose F. Aguayo, the uncle's estate is like something out of a horror film, dark, forbidding and with a smothering air about it.

The ghoul is provided by her uncle, who lost his wife years ago and now spends his time fantasizing about her (he's turned her wedding clothes, including a corset, into fetishes; he enjoys trying on her shoes). His servant (Margarita Lozana) serves as a surrogate Igor. The uncle falls in love with Viridiana and the two of them conspire to keep her there. They drug her, and he almost rapes her while she sleeps.

Bunuel resolves this in dramatic fashion and then sets Viridiana on another course. Her experiences have left her wanting to take a more altruistic path, away from the passive devotion of the nunnery, and she tries to create a halfway house for the needy at the estate. But problems arise there, too, as she is made to confront the hopelessness of her idealism and a handsome, lusty cousin (Francisco Rabal) who happens on the scene.

Besides the obvious mingling of sex and piety, what infuriated religious leaders (including those at the Vatican) was how Bunuel's symbolism appeared to directly mock Scripture.

By extension, Viridiana's near-rape by her uncle and a later attack by a drunken beggar was seen as an assault on the Virgin Mary. A bawdy, brawling feast (accompanied by Handel's "Messiah") was judged a blasphemous metaphor for the Last Supper. And Viridiana's final acceptance of her physical wants--the movie hints of a menage a trois with cousin Jorge and his mistress--sent everybody over the wall.

To all the complaining, Bunuel said simply: "I didn't set out to be blasphemous, but then Pope John XXIII is a better judge of such things than I am. . . . When you're 61, you're not interested in behaving childishly."

What: Luis Bunuel's "Viridiana."

When: Friday, May 10, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Wilshire Auditorium, 330 N. Lemon St., Fullerton.

Whereabouts: Take the Riverside (91) Freeway to Lemon Street and head north.

Wherewithal: $4 and $5.

Where to Call: (714) 871-4030, Ext. 15.

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