But I've been watching both of those guys for years, and I've learned how to watch them, as much as you can learn such a thing. Other directors, however, I approach with trepidation. If I don't "get" this movie, what does that say about me? Liking or not liking a film is one thing, but I'd like to know what it is I'm liking or not liking. Does the fact that I think both Hour of the Wolf and Persona appear to be a bit thick mean that I'm missing something. In both cases, I've come to learn that the answer is no (that Hour of the Wolf speaks to me as a work of art, and Persona doesn't (or hasn't yet) is something I'll have to work out for myself, possibly with the aid of a psychiatrist), but I didn't know that when I first watched them. My nervousness in this regard probably has a lot to do with the fact, typically, I don't read a hell of a lot of film criticism, and even less film theory. Most of the time, I go into a film practically stone cold. That's not to say that you might see me browsing in my local Blockbuster(TM), where I'll pick up Beware of a Holy Whore and say, "Huh! Never heard of this one. Think I'll give 'er a spin!" But it does mean that what I know about Fassbinder the next time I watch one of his films you could comfortably fit inside my favorite hat...and I don't even have a favorite hat!! I'm probably putting myself across as some kind of film illiterate, which I'm not at all, but, as they say, I know what I know, and I'm fully, painfully aware of what I don't know.
All of which brings me, sort of, to my subject tonight, which is Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, a film I approached gently, for fear that it, too, would mercilessly expose me as the bone-stupid rube that I am. Here, I'll show you what kind of no-nothing douche I am by telling you what I know about Luis Bunuel:
1) He was Spanish
2) He was an atheist
3) He didn't like rich people
4) He never worked with Tom Berenger
5) He directed that movie about the serial killer who sliced up people's eyes. What was that one called, Maniac? Maniac Cop? Maniac Cop 2?
And of those, only the second two really seem to apply to Viridiana, which, ever so briefly, is about a woman named Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), who is preparing to take her final vows and become a nun. Her Mother Superior tells her that before that happens, she should visit her Uncle Jaime (Fernando Rey), whom she barely knows. Jaime, Viridiana's last living relative and a very rich landowner, is a widow. Shortly after Viridiana arrives, he attempts to seduce her, even begs for her hand in marriage, making her put on his dead wife's wedding dress (and that's hardly all, but, for those who haven't see the film yet, some of its perversity should be experienced in pure form). Viridiana rejects him, and attempts to flee back to her convent. She's stopped at the train station by the police, who inform her that her uncle has committed suicide. After that, Viridiana decides to stay at her uncle's estate (as does Jorge -- played by Francisco Rabal -- the son Jaime neglected his whole life, but to whom he willed his entire fortune), where she takes the local homeless, crippled and diseased under her wing, and to whom she functions, or attempts to function, as a personal savior. It's at around this point that one should remember that Bunuel was an atheist.
Okay, so he was atheist. I'm not an atheist myself, but, regardless of what Bill Maher thinks about folks like me, knowing this fact about Bunuel does not lead me to imagine him rotting in Hell, writhing in blood-soaked agony, all the while marveling at the sinful erection this image has produced (either that, or I get so angry at learning of Bunuel's atheism that I run right out and punch a gay person). Anyway, my friend and fellow blogger Rick Olson has more than once pointed out to me (indirectly) the interesting fact that one of Bunuel's closest friends, in his declining years, was a priest. Does that mean Bunuel experienced a conversion late in life? No, but that fact does help explain his treatment of faith and Christianity in Viridiana. Bunuel is, without question, blasphemous in this film, and his view of the power of faith is withering. But Viridiana herself is never anything less that wholly decent, loving, and kind -- hopelessly so. Even her Mother Superior, in her two scenes, is portrayed as a good and reasonable woman, however stern. How jarring is it, in this day and age, to see a film made by an avowed atheist that doesn't make its points through cheap shots at Christianity and condescencion, and by proudly flaunting its ignorance of the religion? I'll tell you how jarring it is: really jarring.
What puzzles me about Viridiana has to do with Bunuel's treatment of class. Rich Jaime is perverse, almost dangerously so, but he's a sad figure, not at all like the hateful cartoon played by Fernando Rey in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. And his newly rich son Jorge...what is his deal, anyway? He's kind to dogs, I know that.
Do you know who is portrayed as a hateful cartoon? All the poor and handicapped people. Frankly, Viridiana feels like Crimes and Misdemeanors tripped and fell on the dinner scene from Freaks. If the "freaks" in that film were hateful. Okay, that last one didn't work. The point being, class in this film is trickier than in any other Bunuel film I've seen, and I haven't worked that part out yet. If I could be bothered to open a goddamn book every once and a while, maybe I wouldn't be having this problem, but that's what I get.
In Viridiana, I'm following Bunuel about halfway, but after that things get a little bit slippery, harder to pin down, and as a result I'm tempted to conclude that Bunuel wanted to make a film, and maybe didn't care too much about earning plaudits from those who would simply congratulate themselves for agreeing with him.