Another film from Luis Buñuel here, which shows me up for thinking he was all surrealistic and weird and that’s it. However – I still didn’t quite come to grips with how things ended.
Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is an almost-nun, about to take her holy orders. But her estranged uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) writes to the convent, asking if Viridiana can please come for a visit before she cloisters herself forever. Viridiana is reluctant – she and Don Jaime barely know each other, and he’d never reached out before this – but since he’s apparently supported her financially all this time, her Mother Superior persuades her to go.
Things seem okay, if a bit odd, at first; Don Jaime has been living as a near-recluse on the family farm, in a Miss-Havisham-esque state of mourning after his wife died on their wedding day. At least there’s a few servants – chief among them Ramona (Margarita Lozano), a housekeeper grateful Don Jaime has been looking after her and her daughter Rita (Teresa Rabal). Ramona and the others give Viridiana a warm enough welcome, but Don Jaime and Viridiana both quickly agree that they don’t know each other very well and are near-strangers. Don Jaime apologizes, but Viridiana waves him off; the past can’t be heled. But it’s okay. She’s grateful for his support and will pray for him in the convent.
However, Don Jaime can’t quite let things go – because Viridiana looks exactly like his late wife. And the longer she stays, the more Don Jaime becomes convinced he’d like her to extend her stay – and become the wife he’d wanted all those years ago. He appeals to her on her final night there; and when that fails, he drugs her, in an effort to at least get the wedding night he never got. Fortunately he comes to his senses before going through with raping Viridiana – but the shame drives him to kill himself, leaving the farm to Viridiana, and one or two other people.
Viridiana’s already been so shaken up by the experience that she was going to drop out of the convent anyway. The inheritance is the perfect chance to still Serve God, in a different way; she opens up the servant quarters as a shelter for the homeless and indigent in the main village, rounding them up and moving them all into the servant quarters, where she lives with them, dining with them communally and giving them odd jobs around the farm. Any plans she might have had to expand into the main house get dashed when Don Jaime’s other heir shows up – an illegitimate son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal), no one knew about. Jorge accepts Viridiana’s shelter, on the condition that the main house would be his – Don Jaime also ignored him the way he ignored Viridiana, and he’s a little bitter. So he plans to fully enjoy the finery Don Jaime left behind, restoring the house to its former glory and enjoying his new life of luxury. The pair just need to cement the arrangement with Don Jaime’s lawyer, and head into town for an overnight visit, leaving Viridiana’s charges behind. And their curiosity about what’s in The Big House tempts them to break in and explore…
So the very ending got to me. A good part of what came before seems to be about how Viridiana’s idealism and naivete about the world gets stripped away – she’s pretty innocent at the start of the film, to the point that even touching the cow’s teat in the barn squicks her out. She is so thrown by Don Jaime’s suicide that she considers herself no longer worthy of holy orders. She thinks that the villagers will be so grateful for her food and care and moral example that they’ll all immediately turn nice and pious. She is perfectly ready to live the rest of her life alongside Jorge, both of them staying perfectly chaste neighbors. And gradually each of these notions gets stripped away, as the villagers stay just as crude and corrupt as ever, and as Jorge starts flirting with her on top of everything too – she’s been completely wrong about nearly everything.
There’s a really interesting sequence about midway through the film, where Viridiana is working with the villagers in a field while Jorge oversees some contractors working on the house. She rallies the villagers around her, announcing that it’s time for them to pray the Angelus . Buñuel cuts back and forth between shots of Viridiana and the villagers reciting the prayer, and shots of the contractors doing grunt work on the house – plastering walls, unloading lumber, mixing cement. Viridiana thinks she’s doing the real work, but on some level she really isn’t getting her hands dirty yet. And much later when she is forced to confront the real ugliness of the world, she has a hard time handling it.
And that’s what lead to my questions about the ending. She’s still living on the farm, and there’s a definite implication Jorge may start fooling around with her somewhere down the line, but Pinal plays Viridiana with a near catatonic blankness during the last few shots and I found myself wondering whether Viridiana had actually lost her mind. The gradual and utter disillusionment her character experienced would have certainly been enough to prompt it – and that made the final scene, where Jorge invites her in to “play cards” with himself and Ramona, a bit ickier for me than audiences already thought it was.
The last scene was a last-minute addition, however – the film originally was supposed to end with Jorge inviting Viridiana into his room alone, and she was supposed to agree, willingly and with intent. Early audiences didn’t like that, so Buñuel threw in a new ending, where Viridiana dazedly walks in on Jorge making out with Ramona, and the pair cover by saying they’re playing cards – and invite her to join them. Buñuel gleefully thought this made the ending even dirtier, by implying Viridiana was now entering into a menage a trois. But Viridiana is in such a daze throughout the scene that I couldn’t shake the thought that she was being forced into it, making things all the more disturbing. I agreed that Viridiana needed to learn some hard truths about human nature – but somehow this seemed much too harsh.