René Magritte’s trompe l’oeil masterpiece, The Human Condition (1935), features a painted canvas before an open window that seamlessly connects art and life, hinting at the unnerving unreality of the hidden. We might think we know what is concealed behind the painting canvas in the scene, but we cannot be sure: like a Schrodinger’s Cat, the landscape is and is not there. Translated to the immoral world of Viridiana — Luis Buñuel’s 1961 surreal masterpiece — the painted landscape of The Human Condition becomes the morals and ideals we hold ourselves to. The veneer of a good life… a painted landscape that may or may not be a true representation of the human spirit.
Viridiana, a young novice ready to take her vows, visits her wealthy uncle, Don Jaime, after being urged by her Mother Superior. Alienated and lonely, the man falls in love with his niece who bares an uncanny resemblance to his deceased wife. When Viridiana refuses his affections, Don Jaime kills himself, leaving his fortune to the girl and his illegitimate son, Jorge. Ever noble, Viridiana opens up their home to vagrants, paupers and cripples.
Buñuel’s lingering voyeuristic camera invites the audience into uncomfortable desire. Fetishism reigns in his perverse world of chaos and irrationality, where order exists only through the power of suggestion. With pregnant longing, Buñuel’s camera lingers on feet and undressed legs which invite the audience to imagine them desecrated, and Viridiana’s purity becomes rendered to such extremes that the audience also begins to hunger for her desecration. As morally abhorrent as it may be, Buñuel wills us to revel in a stained lace fabric, spilled wine and a torn wedding dress. If the bonds that hold society together are fraudulent, meant only to uphold the power structure, maybe we’d be better off embracing our animal instincts, maybe we’d be more fulfilled pursuing our bodily pleasures.
It’s easy to understand why the Church objected so violently to Buñuel’s depiction of religion by banning the film, as it suggests not that we are not inherently good but that the power that religion holds in our lives hangs by a thread. Buñuel has also been accused of cynicism, a misinterpretation of his distrust of those who claim moral authority. By the end of the film, Viridiana has been nearly raped at least twice and finally seems set to abandon her religious vocation, however Buñuel doesn’t frame it as a tragedy. Viridiana’s downfall was not caused by immorality or sin: her virtue was consistently the source of her suffering. One may come to realize that seeing goodness where it doesn’t exist might not be so virtuous after all.
But, the overall beauty of Buñuel’s work always lies in his malleability. He doesn’t side against morality, he merely posits that it’s an inconvenience in the pursuit of pleasure. And maybe some of us prefer to be possessed. In casting Francisco Rabal as Jorge, the illegitimate son and Viridiana’s foil, Buñuel hits a note that few directors ever manage successfully: he creates a monstrous male who sustains desirability in spite of never showing “real” virtue. Handsome but brutish, Jorge is a philanderer, but he doesn’t hide this from anyone — least of all, the women he loves. His honesty may not absolve him of the pain he causes, but at the very least, he offers them a choice. So, Jorge becomes an especially compelling object of desire in a world of duplicity and fraud. As Buñuel makes painfully clear, eternal happiness or blissful devotion do not exist, so why not choose a warm body over a cold prayer?
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.