Category: Spain

It’s been a while since I’ve watched a movie like this. As a matter of fact, the last movie I saw that as anything like this was my last Luis Buñuel picture, Belle de Jour, except that the movie I just finished, 1961’s Viridiana is superior to it in practically every way. Like I said though, it’s been a good long while since I watched a film that was just crammed full of esoteric symbolism and extremely high-brow (and delightfully blasphemous) social commentary. It would appear that much like Fellini (whose La Strada was simply an appetizer for the main course of Fellini Satyricon), Buñuel gave me the less than satisfying Belle de Jour to make me completely blown away by the viciously comedic satire that is Viridiana. I honestly did not particularly want to watch this movie when I put it in my PS3 because its story as described by its Netflix blurb sounded dreadfully dull. Simply put, I was wrong.

At its core, Viridiana is the story of the titular main character, a young woman who is about to take her final vows to become a nun. Viridiana receives a letter from her uncle, Don Jaime, to visit his estate one last time before she takes her vows. Viridiana bears an uncanny resemblance to Don Jaime’s late wife and because of this, Don Jaime is preternaturally infatuated with Viridiana. Don Jaime sets out on a course to corrupt the pious Viridiana so that she will turn her back on her holy vows and become his wife. This is only the first third of the movie however, as the last 2/3 are devoted to what I consider to be the real heart of the film, but to examine that plot would be to give away the end of the first act which I will refrain from doing. Needless to say, the movie goes to some really interesting places.

One of the central themes of the film is the absurdity of both religion and extreme piety. Because of the manner in which young Viridiana lives and holds herself and especially considering the state of Don Jaime’s manse, you’d be forgiven for believing that the film takes place in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. However, it takes place in the modern day of when it was filmed, so the early 1960’s. You slowly get hints at that throughout the whole film, but when you hear a rock and roll song playing on the radio at the deeply symbolic ending, it strikes you at how absurd it is that Viridiana has been living her life like a relic from another age. Viridiana is the heroine of the film, but Buñuel does not spare her suffering the vast majority of the satirical blows of the film. Eventually, Viridiana takes a flock of beggars under her wings as at attempt to rehabilitate their vices and sins that got them in that mess. It goes hilariously wrong for Viridiana, although one scene becomes especially dark and horrific, but that simply serves to hammer the final nail in the message of the film.

Special props must be given to Buñuel’s cinematography which is simply superb. Not since La Strada have I seen a black and white film with such beautiful photography and gorgeous and original shots. I’m a tried and true cinephile, and while I’ve probably run the gamut of interesting and original stories, one of my new favorite pleasures of watching movies is discovering true masters behind the camera. Out of the films I’ve reviewed for this blog, this definitely has one of the five best black and white cinematography jobs that I’ve seen. Only Manhattan, The Shop on Main Street, and La Strada readily spring to mind as peers. Also, Sylvia Pinel was a pure delight as the main character and the ordeals that she faces throughout the whole film are great opportunities for Pinel to shine.

If you are especially religious and can’t take any criticisms of faith or the basic tenets of your dogma, you should probably not watch this. If you’re an atheist or able to poke a little fun at yourself, then this is simply a great film. While it’s not, over-all, as great a foreign feature as Ran, The Shop on Main Street, or Fellini Satyricon, it’s still an exceptional piece of satire that shouldn’t be missed by those craving a little bit of the surreal. As I understand it, this is actually one of Buñuel’s most straight-forward films, so even if you’re slightly put off by my classification of this movie as art house, don’t let that scare you away. I actually believe it’s fairly accessible if you have the patience for it.

Final Score: A-

Pedro Almodovar is one of the big, big stars of modern foreign cinema, and along with names like Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, he is one of the serious auteurs showing why Spanish language cinema is, in my opinion, the the king of foreign cinema. If there is one over-riding theme of Almodovar’s films, it is to show strong women. His understated meditation on the lengths that women will go to protect their family is no exception and with 2006’s Volver, Pedro added another great film to his repertoire.

Volver follows the story of two sisters, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz in one of the best roles of her career) and Soledad (Lola Duenas). One night, Raimunda’s daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), kills her father in self defense because the father was trying to rape her. The film chronicles her attempts to cover up the murder and protect her family. Also, to complicate matters, the ghost of Raimunda’s mother appears to Soledad wanting forgiveness for prior misdeeds. I won’t give away any more of the plot because part of the joy of the film is unraveling the many different story threads and seeing how they all come tumbling back towards each other.

The film’s title is very significant. “Volver” means “to return” in Spanish and is also the title of a traditional Spanish song that Penelope sings later in the film. One of the main themes of the film is returning back to the past, whether that past is family or past trauma or simply memories. It also refers to how the past returns to the present and perhaps we are all just living in the cycle that others have lived for thousands of years. This is an artistic and symbolic film and a lot of pleasure can be gained from picking apart the themes and different little meanings hidden within. Hell, the opening shot of a large group of widows cleaning their own future graves helps to reinforce the fatalistic nature of the film.

The acting in the film is stellar. Penelope Cruz is incredibly irritating in English-speaking roles but when she acts in her native tongue, she is a stellar and beautiful actress. I can definitely see why she was nominated for an Oscar for this film. Carmen Maura was also scene-stealing as the mother. If you can handle an under-stated family dramedy, you should really check this out.

Final Score: A-