Analysis of ‘Viridiana’

Viridiana is a 1961 Spanish-Mexican film by Luis Buñuel, loosely based on the novel Halma by Benito Pérez Galdós, and starring Silvia Pinal in the title role, as well as Fernando Rey, Margarita Lozano, and Francisco Rabal. As usual, Buñuel criticizes the Church and bourgeois society in this film. It is about a novice soon to take her vows as a nun, but who finds it increasingly difficult–due to external pressure, or internal?–to reconcile herself with the moral ideals of the Church.

Viridiana was the co-winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival.

Here are a few quotes in English translation:

Viridiana: I know my own weakness, and whatever I do will be humble. But, however little it is, I want to do it alone.

Jorge: I always knew that you and I were going to end up playing cards together!

Verdiana was the name of a generous, charitable saint who secluded herself for 34 years to focus on her faith. The Viridiana of this film is similarly, if not so extremely, reclusive, but just as generous and charitable. Her name comes from a word meaning ‘green’: I think of an old meaning of green, from back in Shakespeare’s time, meaning ‘youthful, inexperienced, immature’; but also, ‘fresh, recent, new’ (Crystal and Crystal, page 205), strongly implying ‘pure.’ There is, indeed, a strong sense that this novice embodies all of these definitions, in more ways than one.

She also happens to be a beautiful young blonde, most desirable to men; her choice to become a nun seems to be, at least in part, motivated by a fear of sexually predatory men. Her virgin purity makes her all the more attractive to her uncle, Don Jaime (Rey), who finds that she reminds him of his late bride, who died before he could even consummate their marriage.

His preoccupation with her beauty and purity reminds me of Heinrich Heine‘s poem:

Du bist wie eine Blume,
So hold und schön und rein;
Ich schau’ dich an, und Wehmut
Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.

Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt’,
Betend, dass Gott dich erhalte
So rein und schön und hold.
You are like a flower,
So lovely, fair and pure;
I gaze at you and wistful
Melancholy slips into my heart.

It’s as though I ought to place
My hands upon your head
And pray God to ever keep you
So pure, fair, and lovely.

This notion of extreme purity leads to an exploration of the themes of modesty, humility, and every other point on the circular continuum I symbolize with the ouroboros, including the dialectical opposites of pride (the serpent’s biting head) vs. shame (the bitten tail). Viridiana is so particular about her maidenly modesty, it’s a source of narcissistic pride for her. Thus, even the mere suggestion of male physical closeness feels like a violation to her.

This excessive modesty comes from her stern Catholic upbringing, once again Buñuel’s satirical target. She has no interest in visiting her Uncle Jaime, whom she’s met only once; but she’s pressured into visiting him by her mother superior. She’d rather stay secluded and cloistered, suggesting she regards the Church as more of a family than her biological one. I suspect she had an unhappy family upbringing, driving her to the Church for a replacement.

The Virgin Mary seems to be an idealized parental imago for Viridiana, the perfect mother who represents an ego ideal to which she aspires. We get a sense of this when she prays the Angelus with the homeless people. Mary is “full of grace” (κεχαριτωμένη), which the Catholic Church interprets as a kind of purity existing from birth, the Immaculate Conception. Viridiana would thus want to identify with Mary, for narcissistic reasons.

Any man even making a pass at her threatens this purity she so covets, causing her narcissistic injury. Viridiana, I suspect, has transferred her feelings of maternal love to Mary, just as Don Jaime, admiring Viridiana’s beauty and purity, transfers his love of his deceased bride onto her, especially since the two women look so alike. Indeed, transference is a major theme in this Freudo-Marxist film.

Normally, one thinks of transference in the psychoanalytical setting; the patient transfers the feelings of a powerful emotional bond, especially one from childhood, onto the therapist. Viridiana has made this kind of transference onto Mary, her ‘therapist.’ Similarly, Viridiana has become, however unwittingly, Jaime’s ‘therapist.’ They are using their transferences in an attempt to heal, though these attempts ultimately fail.

On the first night of Viridiana’s visit, we see her in her bedroom, taking off black stockings to reveal her delicious legs; Buñuel’s lustful camera does a closeup on them, another example of his irreverence towards Church authority. She unpacks a large wooden crucifix and a crown of thorns. She’s so devoted to her faith, she’d rather sleep on the hard floor, as Jaime’s servant, Ramona, notes.

Now, Ramona is an interesting character to compare and contrast with Viridiana. Jaime’s servant is dutiful, bashful, and modest, but also lacking in the novice’s religious pretensions. This is another of Buñuel’s jabs at the Church. And who, I’m curious, is the father of Ramona’s naughty, nosy daughter Rita? Jaime has been kind enough to take mother and daughter in: is the girl an illegitimate child, as Jaime’s son, Jorge, is? Again, we see Buñuel’s alternative morality to the hypocritical one of the Church.

I suspect that Ramona has a secret love for Jaime, an Oedipal feeling, perhaps, transferred from her father onto her master, but a feeling she’s too shy to express openly. In any case, after he hangs himself and she meets Jorge, she transfers her love from father to handsome son…and feels that love more overtly, this time.

The morning of the second day of Viridiana’s visit, she goes to a servant milking a cow. She tries pulling on one of the cow’s teats; but they are long, even phallic in length. She can’t bring herself to handle them, as doing so, it seems, far too much resembles masturbating a man to orgasm (i.e., the squirting out of the milk). Her pious modesty is so extreme, she cannot do anything even vaguely redolent of sexuality.

Then, naughty Rita agitates her by saying she saw her in her nightgown the night before, having sneaked a peek from a nearby terrace. Viridiana blenches at even having been spied on by a pre-teen girl.

That night, Jaime has been fetishizing the bridal clothes of his deceased wife; he puts his too-large foot into one of her high heels (symbolic intercourse wish-fulfillment), then stands before a mirror while almost trying on her girdle. Apart from the erotic overtones of these actions, we sense his pathetic yearning for his lost love, his unfulfillable wish to be at one with her.

Then he sees Viridiana sleepwalking in that white nightgown, with her pretty bare feet and lower legs exposed. She is doubly vulnerable before him, in a relative state of undress, and unaware of it. The thought of his predatory eyes on her will terrify her when he tells her what he’s seen the next morning.

During her sleepwalking, she’s also psychologically naked and vulnerable, for her unconscious is let loose, expressing her hidden desires, if only symbolically. Kneeling at his fireplace, she empties a basket of yarn and needles into the fire, representing an unconscious wish to be rid of clothing, the antithesis of a nun’s modesty. She has a bad habit, it seems.

Then she gathers ashes in the basket and takes them to his bedroom, then sprinkles them on his bed; the ashes, we learn the next day, are a symbol of penitence…and death. What has she to repent of…secret, repressed sexual desires? Death associated with his bed suggests once again the marriage of the life (e.g., sex) and death drives.

The next day, Don Jaime, so captivated by Viridiana’s beauty, her purity (So hold und schön und rein), and of course her resemblance to her deceased aunt, asks her to dress up in her bridal gown, another shocking thing to do, in Viridiana’s view. The deceased bride, having worn white to the wedding, was in all probability a virgin (especially given the conservative mores of the time); but Viridiana–though complying–still feels uncomfortable doing it, as she feels like a sex object.

She of course is being objectified and ogled by her uncle, who has Ramona drug Viridiana’s coffee. Ramona, wholly devoted to her master, will do whatever he wants her to do, even as wicked a thing as helping him take advantage of his unconscious niece! Why? I suspect because Ramona secretly wishes Jaime desired her in the same way…also, allowing Viridiana to be deflowered–and thus, shamed–would serve Ramona because of sexual jealousy. Hence, she doesn’t mind telling Viridiana of Jaime’s shameful wish to marry his niece. Still, he’s a good man, in Ramona’s mind.

Viridiana is already uneasy enough knowing her uncle is the father of an illegitimate child (Jorge), for such is her lofty moral ideal. Her purity is part of what makes her so attractive to him; she looks so sexy in that virginal white dress…and she knows exactly how he feels about her.

Being in that dress with him at night is, of course, a reenacting of his wedding night with her aunt, when she died of a heart attack before he could consummate the marriage. This lonely, reclusive man has yearned to have that night given back to him, and now he can have it back through Viridiana.

Even before Ramona has given her the drugged coffee, Viridiana can sense her uncle’s lust; wearing that bridal gown strongly implies a soon-t0-be-lost virginity, which is anathema, horrifying to her. By helping Jaime satisfy his desire, though, Ramona can satisfy hers vicariously through Viridiana. Meanwhile, little Rita is frightened by a bull she claims entered her bedroom; the animal represents a sexually predatory male…is this an omen of what’s to come between Jaime and Viridiana?

While sexual assault (of anyone, woman, man, or child) is of course never defensible, especially to a communist like Buñuel, Viridiana’s predicament can be seen unconsciously, symbolically as a wish-fulfillment in that it desecrates the Catholic ideal of sexual purity in a woman. Destroying this impossible ideal by demonstrating its unattainability can liberate women sexually, by making them give up on it. Indeed, Viridiana will be so liberated at the end of the film.

Note that Jaime never carries out his plan to deflower her. While she’s unconscious, and Mozart‘s Requiem Mass is playing (symbolizing a fusion of the libido and death drive), he kisses her on the lips, unbuttons her top to reveal her creamy cleavage, then kisses her there (and naughty Rita spies on them); but moral scruple makes him come to his senses, and he stops. He mustn’t stain such divine purity.

So hold und schön und rein.

The next morning, when he tells her he took advantage of her while she was out cold, even when he later insists he never actually penetrated her, she can’t be certain of which statement is the truth, and which the lie–has he, or has he not raped her? So she, “for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety,” and imagine the worst. But how can she be unsure of what’s happened? Surely she knows that she will feel vaginal soreness, pain from a ruptured hymen, that there will be blood, if he’s had her.

He lies about having intercourse with her while she slept (later admitting he’s lied) so she’ll think her ‘stained’ body will make her unworthy of being a nun, then she’ll have nowhere else to go but to live with him. She’s afraid of male sexual predation to a far greater degree than the average woman, religiously devoted or not—why?

I don’t think we’re supposed to believe she was sexually abused at an earlier period of her life (though she, in all likelihood, has endured men’s leers and groping hands on many occasions throughout her life); for if she was raped, given the strict Catholic morality of her world, she surely would have already considered herself too ‘unclean’ to be a nun.

Now, for her, the meaning of sexual assault is expanded to mean “that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Furthermore, given the way rape victims tend to be slut-shamed, especially in Viridiana’s prudish world, she will feel as guilty, however unjustifiably, of having ‘tempted’ her attackers as they are of attacking her.

So her fears about whatever Don Jaime has done while she’s been unconscious are not based on a fear of possibly having been penetrated, nor do they seem to be a kind of PTSD reliving of what may have happened to her sometime before the beginning of this film. His having touched her, kissed her, and partially undressed her are rape enough. 

And how far did he undress her? She has no idea. We know he only unbuttoned her top: he saw her cleavage, but not her whole breasts. Still, how does she know he didn’t undress her further? Does he know what her whole naked body looks like? Did he fondle her nakedness? Taste it? How many of her anatomical secrets does he know of?

Even the few of those secrets that Don Jaime knows would be enough to make any woman cringe, because they have been divulged without consent (consider the complaints against lecherous Bill Cosby to see my point). But for a woman as proud of keeping her secrets hidden as Viridiana is, her uncle’s–however slight–‘breaking and entering,’ as it were, is all the more outrageous and unbearable.

She feels the shame, but don’t forget that he does, too. After all, he’s the sinner, not she…and no one is more aware of his exclusive guilt than he is. He’s so tearfully desperate to get her forgiveness that, when he doesn’t get it, he hangs himself.

What we must remember is that he doesn’t merely lust after her–he’s fallen in love with her (which is not to excuse him for his scurrilous scheming), out of her resemblance, in her looks, her walk, her voice, in every way, to his beloved late bride. He’s transferred that deep passion onto Viridiana.

Buñuel has been said to have valued sex over love: this seems to be a vulgar, bourgeois interpretation of his frank depiction of sexuality in his films, and it’s utter nonsense. Buñuel uses sex to enhance love, to free it from the bourgeois chains of Church morality.

Another theme in this film is that of solitude. Viridiana prefers being cut off from the larger society: if not hidden from it in the convent, then in the outbuilding section of late Jaime’s estate, which he’s left to her and Jorge. Her religious solitude, as I’ve said above, echoes that of the saint who shares her name; but is this solitude out of spiritual conviction, or social alienation?

Jaime’s solitude is certainly out of alienation, for he, as a bourgeois, rentier capitalist, is inevitably affected by the estrangement that capitalism causes. He has some goodness, though, as all the characters in Viridiana are each a mix of good and bad. For example, Jaime has taken in Ramona and Rita, and he even saves a bee from drowning.

His illegitimate son, Jorge, has a sexual interest in Viridiana that bothers both her and his jealous, live-in girlfriend, Lucia, who soon leaves him; but he isn’t the type to rape a woman. The worst he does is to walk into Viridiana’s bedroom without her permission. He kisses Ramona on the lips only because he knows, from the longing in her eyes, that she is aching for his kiss.

Still yearning to be a good Christian even though she feels unworthy of being a nun, Viridiana takes in a group of beggars to live in the outbuilding part of the house. As pitiable as these wretches are, though, they’re far from virtuous; they make one of them, a bald fellow without his upper front teeth, into a pariah because his varicose veins seem to them to be a symptom of leprosy.

Out in the field with Viridiana, they pray the Angelus with her while Jorge’s hired workers are renovating the house and surrounding area; in other words, the first group is engaging in faith, while the second group is actually working. Here is another example of Buñuel taking a jab at the Church, which values grace through faith over good works. She and the beggars are praying a useless prayer to her idol, Mary, while Jorge’s men are making themselves useful–working, because il faut cultiver notre jardin.

One of the beggars, El Cojo (‘the lame one,’ played by José Manuel Martin), fancies himself a faithful Catholic and not only helps Viridiana in leading the Angelus prayer, but also paints a portrait of the Madonna; still, he’s a bad, even violent fellow, for he threatens the ‘leper,’ and later Jorge, with a knife, and even tries to rape Viridiana toward the end of the film. Again, Buñuel demonstrates the emptiness of faith as against good works.

When she, Jorge, Ramona, and Rita leave the house on business (the servants have also left, out of disgust with the beggars), the beggars decide to go in the house and have a party. They’ll clean up after, and no one will be the wiser…or so they imagine.

This party symbolizes a proletarian seizing of the means of production…though it’s a poorly planned ‘revolution,’ more like anarchist Catalonia, or the Ukrainian Free Territory under Makhno, than anything like the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. Accordingly, their ‘insurrection’ doesn’t last.

During their dinner, they take a group photo at the long table. Buñuel deliberately has the actors pose in a manner parodying Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper, with the blind Don Amalio (played by José Calvo) in the middle, in Christ’s place. When Enedina (played by Lola Gaos) takes the photo, her lifting up of her dress is the ‘flash!’

After that, the ‘leper’ puts on a record of Händel‘s Hallelujah Chorus, and he dresses up in some of Jaime’s bride’s clothing, repeating the suicide’s cross-dressing, though in a comical, rather than pathetic, way.  His dancing around to the music is more of Buñuel making fun of religious piety. He tosses to the floor the feathers of a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, he found earlier.

Furthermore, this juxtaposition of these would-be lumpenproletariat revolutionaries with Christian music and iconography represents how the infantile disorder of ‘left’ communism is as unrealistic as is Viridiana’s idealization of Marian Catholicism. Just as there is no way to be a morally perfect woman, there is also no way to have a perfect communist revolution, all in one fell swoop. The beggars have no vanguard to educate and organize them, so their ‘revolution’ is practically still-born.

And so, because these people are, in varying degrees, degenerates, their party degenerates, too. A man takes Enedina behind the sofa and has her. An older beggar, Manuel, who has a penchant for gossip, tells Don Amalio about the screwing around, but he won’t lead the jealous blind man over to the sofa to beat the man for taking his woman; so Don Amalio smashes his cane on the dinner table, destroying the dishes.

As we can see, their ‘revolution’ is a bit too Makhnovist for comfort. Jorge, Viridiana, Ramona, and Rita return early to find out what’s been happening. El Cojo and the “leper” subdue Jorge while Ramona goes off in the car to get the police; this leaves Viridiana to the mercy of El Cojo’s lust. She fights the good fight to get him off of her.

All her efforts to be a good Christian, to show charity and compassion to the beggars and to give them moral instruction, have been for naught. Jorge, however, promises money to the “leper” if he’ll beat El Cojo on the head with a small shovel to stop him from raping her. Though El Cojo is stopped, she, overwhelmed with trauma, faints…just as she was unconscious when Jaime–almost–had her.

Note how, only when unconscious, will she allow any man to touch her. This shows how, only in her unconscious mind, will she allow herself any expression of sexuality. The conscious wish to be an imitator of Christ, of Mary, is clearly a reaction formation against her deepest, most repressed desires, expressed when she was sleepwalking.

The wish to lead a life of chastity rubs against its dialectical opposite, the secret wish to be sexual. Jorge, in contrast, is neither extreme: he accepts the ephemeral nature of sexual relationships, and is none too upset when Lucia leaves him. At the same time, he doesn’t force sex on anyone, unlike El Cojo, the ‘good Catholic.’

Viridiana’s trauma from the attempted rape has, for what it’s worth, one good side effect: she’s been liberated from her attachment to an impossible moral ideal–perfect chastity. As painful as this has been for her, at least she can now get off her high horse and join humanity…and become truly humble, not affectedly so.

She looks at herself in a small mirror, Lacan‘s mirror, as a tear runs down her cheek. That nun she’s seen in the reflection was an illusion, not the real her, but an idealization that has alienated her from herself. Her ability to be ‘pure’ cannot be eternal and unchanging. She must accept this painful truth.

She joins Jorge and Ramona in the main part of the house. He’s pleasantly surprised to see Viridiana at the door. Since Ramona is already his lover, Viridiana’s involvement is implying a ménage à trois, surely to the chagrin of the Francoist censors, but this ending was allowed nonetheless. Instead of listening to pompous religious music, the three would rather hear some fun popular music, Ashley Beaumont’s Shimmy Doll

Their sitting at table together to play cards suggests an equality the beggars couldn’t attain: that of male and female, of master and servant. Jorge’s moderate ‘socialism,’ if you will, is rather like Dengism; one incrementally moves from capitalism to communism, as Xi Jinping‘s government is doing. His sexuality is similarly neither prudish nor overly licentious. No idealistic rushes to extremes here, but rather a cautious creeping ahead.

Jorge doesn’t like the degenerate beggars any more than the other workers in his home. He considers Viridiana’s charitable duties to them pointless; he does, however, tolerate them for a while…until they commit their crimes on him and her. He also takes compassion on a dog, Canelo, and he offers money to the “leper” to stop lustful El Cojo. Though Jorge, representing industrial capitalism, is the bourgeois owner of the house given to him by his father, he’s clearly more generous than the average capitalist.

So, Jorge’s morality is a comfortable middle ground between Viridiana’s Catholic idealism and the reckless anarchism of the beggars. It’s like a Marxist sublation of the Christian thesis of an unattainable moral perfection, and its Makhnovist negation. This is the alternative morality Buñuel is proposing, and it’s a refreshing alternative to all the rubbish we’ve had thrown in our faces for so long.

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