Monday, March 30, 2009

UW Cinematheque screens Viridiana, the film that was banned in Spain for 16 years


Don't see this film if you're as easily shocked as the Vatican was in 1961. This is the infamous "Last Supper" scene from Luis Buñuel's Viridiana in which a drunken group of beggars poses for a "photograph" in imitation of Da Vinci's painting. The pose (and the nature of the "camera") were considered blasphemous back then.

Cinematheque-smViridiana was one of a number of Buñuel films shown over the weekend at my favorite Madison theater (free, but donations appreciated). It's the perfect intimate setting for watching the film treasures of the past the way they were intended, rather than on DVD (and in any case, many are not available on DVD, although Viridiana is). Some are masterpieces, while others are simply fascinating footnotes to film history. Bunuel's mordant satirical fable is much more than a footnote.

Prof-smJuan Egea, an associate professor of Spanish and Portugese at the UW, was on hand to introduce some of the political complexities and paradoxes that went into the making of the film -- the anti-Franco expatriate Buñuel's first and only film he ever shot in Franco's Spain. Although he had been promised freedom by the government, the Vatican's opposition led the film to be banned in Spain until after Franco died. Buñuel was also forbidden to enter Italy for a year. At the same time, a lot of his friends were angry at Buñuel for even working in Franco's Spain at all. The film shared the 1961 Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, giving a major boost to his later art house career after his many years working in Mexico. One irony: Buñuel did have to work with a censor during the making of the film. The censor didn't like Buñuel's ending and suggested one of his own. Buñuel accepted with alacrity. He liked it better than his own. I don't know what his original ending was, but this one is brilliant.

Viridiana is still a riveting film after all these years, at a time when it seems blasphemy has almost become a meaningless term in the West, where it's getting harder and harder to shock anyone about anything. Although the original outcry against Viridiana came from religious groups that definitely overreacted, you could say that the film really was -- and still is -- blasphemous in a different sense. It blasphemes against conventional political and moral pieties. The Cinematheque's film notes quote critic Michael Wood.
But the blasphemy is not against Christ and the Father. It is against the belief in progress—or at least the conventional sense of it—whether in the form of Jorge’s plans for improving the estate or of Viridiana’s project for improving the beggars’ lives. The beggars are not evil or the dark side of virtue. They are the unruliness of life itself, a reminder that pleasure and curiosity and appetite can always turn to destruction and violence. This is not an argument against pleasure and curiosity and appetite, or an appeal for law and order. It is a picture of a society that doesn’t understand its own needs. Buñuel’s skepticism and his sense of outrage concern the smallness of our vision of progress, our narrow attempts to achieve it through rational or moralistic planning, and our anxious disregard of the disruptive forces without which no society would be human.
After we got home, T turned to Google for more information about the filmmaker and came across this subtitled, 37-min. documentary about Buñuel made by French television in 1964. Now it's a sort of time capsule, capturing a real sense of the man and his work, as well as a time that now seems incredibly distant. Take a look.

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