Saturday, September 16, 2006

Viridiana (1961)

ViridianaBy a strange coincidence, the very week I started reading Taschen's book on the surreal film director Luis Bunuel two of what are considered his best movies are released on DVD (Viridiana is the subject of this mini-review, the other being Exterminating Angel).

Viridiana is the first example of his work I've seen, but falls into the 'watch it as film education' rather than 'watch it as entertainment' category for me.

Made after 25 years of exile, the director was allowed back to his native Spain to make the film, only to have it denounced by the Vatican and suppressed by the Spanish government on the grounds that it was blasphemous and obscene. While its attack on pious religion is not exactly subtle, with the 'highlight' being a rather depraved group of beggars appearing in a tableau clearly meant to represent 'The Last Supper', it doesn't really warrant the attacks it received from its critics and detractors of the time.

The Viridiana of the title is an idealistic young nun who's stopped from taking her final vows by her Mother Superior who asks that she visit a distant dying uncle first. The uncle turns out to have a fetishistic interest in the nun, who resembles his wife who died on their wedding day. He attempts to corrupt Viridiana, and when he dies this corruption is continued by his illegitimate son who he's barely met but who inherits Viridiana's home.

It's a very well told, if rather perverse, tale with a diverse group of paupers and ne'er do wells, invited onto the estate by the former nun, providing comment and comic relief from the main plot, which appears initially to be marketing material for the Catholic church, but ultimately turns out to be an attack on it.

It's not hard to see why this is so popular with the 'film historian' crowd. It's beautifully shot and directed, with some clever visual flourishes and some very unusual props, such as a bizarre figure of Christ on the cross that turns out to be a knife (and is apparently a genuine trinket). But the narrative is bizarre to say the least, full of despicable people out to do our saintly nun harm. The 'climactic' Last Supper scene stands out most and is beautifully constructed, but ultimately I was left not caring about any of the rather miserable characters I'd spent some 87 minutes with (it felt longer!). Admittedly, the black and white nature of the film and the foreign language (the English subtitles are optional and not burnt into the film for those who speak Spanish) make watching this harder work than it should be for someone like me brought up very much with movies of the 80s and later. It all feels rather too stylised, artificial and like a movie from the silent era rather than the speaking one. As a result I'm afraid it failed to really engage me, the way some other movies from the same era have done. It's a film I can certainly admire, but not one that I can particularly say I enjoyed.

The film is advertised as being 4:3 full frame on the DVD packaging, but turns out to be non-anamorphic widescreen. I've expressed my thoughts on the laziness and cheapness of non-anamorphic prints before. Fortunately this cheapness doesn't extend to the quality of the print, which is excellent considering its age. Alas, the same cannot be said for the sound. The menu system boosts the sound levels to a horribly distorted level that is like fingernails being scraped down a board. This is not a DVD that's been put together by anybody who cares about the film or the quality of the DVD experience. THere are no extra's at all. Defintely worth seeing if you're a hardcore film fan, or interested in seeing what's reputed to be the best film made by one of the European greats. But for the vast majority one suspects this will come across as 'worthy but very dull', and the DVD is very much a 'vanilla' release with very little effort, other than restoration of the film, put into its presentation.

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