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Want to win Cannes? Try pissing off the pope

Viridiana (1961)
Viridiana (1961)

Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Viridiana (1961) and The Long Absence (1961)

There was a time when the most surefire way to win Cannes was, apparently, to earn the condemnation of the pope. Okay, so maybe that only happened twice, but it was in consecutive years. La Dolce Vita, arguably the most celebrated movie by the legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, deeply offended the Catholic church, which objected especially to the symbolic Second Coming of the opening minutes, when a helicopter dangles a statue of Christ over the partiers and sunbathers of then-contemporary Rome. But the Vatican’s ire, strongly worded in the pages of official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, couldn’t stop Fellini’s portrait of hedonism run amok from winning the Palme D’Or in 1960. In fact, it may have given the film a boost. After all, one year later, a whole different Cannes jury convened to award the same prize to Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, which the Vatican officially denounced as “blasphemous.” Was pissing off the pope high on the festival’s list of priorities? Or was the holy backlash against these back-to-back winners just proof of their provocative edge, an enviable quality for any film perched on the vanguard of world cinema?

Sophia Loren at Cannes 1961, where she won Best Actress (Photo: RDA/Getty Images)

Viridiana is one of those Cannes winners whose victory seems, at least in retrospect, like a no-brainer: It was a controversial, uncompromising vision from a world-famous alum of the festival, one that inspired lots of heated debate—of buzz, positive and negative—on the French Riviera. In its pedigree and its confrontational tactics, it’s the kind of movie that often wins (and arguably should win) the Palme D’Or. What’s less easy to explain is why the jury, headed by French author Jean Giono, opted to split the prize with another film, the largely forgotten drama The Long Absence. Ties are not uncommon at Cannes. (Or they didn’t used to be, anyway—it’s been 20 years since the Palme went to two movies instead of one.) But more often than not, they’re handed out when there’s not a no-brainer, or one single film, that dominates the festival. If the jury was going to rally around the headline “blasphemy” of Viridiana, why undercut its victory with a split decision, à la the year Jane Campion shared her Palme (the first and still only one awarded to a female filmmaker) with Chen Kaige?

This most prestigious of international film festivals would be hard-pressed to enshrine a filmmaker more acclaimed, and more intrinsically international, than Luis Buñuel. The great surrealist’s work spanned multiple continents, genres, and decades (half a century’s worth total, though he was 30 years into his career when he won Cannes, rocketing himself back into the limelight). Viridiana was a homecoming, the first film Buñuel made in his native Spain since the civil war of the 1930s, when he decamped for the United States and then Mexico. But although it was by official invite that the filmmaker returned, welcomed back by the country’s cultural minister at the behest of Francisco Franco himself, Buñuel wasn’t in an especially patriotic mood. Granted the freedom to make whatever he wanted, the director did what he did best and provoked, expressing a very dim view of Spanish society, high and low. The results, supposedly submitted after Buñuel (wisely) left the country, were promptly banned in Spain, just as La Dolce Vita had been a year earlier. (The ban of these and other “shameful films” wouldn’t be lifted until the ’70s, when Franco died.)

Viridiana (1961)

Loosely based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, Viridiana is one of Buñuel’s most straightforward movies, and also one of his most pitilessly scathing. It’s a kind of reverse redemption story, in which a young woman, pure of heart and intentions, has her faith in humanity (and more) systematically shattered. Establishing a tone of pious austerity that’s just a hair shy of parodic, the film opens with novitiate nun Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), who’s maybe days away from taking her vows, pressured by her mother superior into going to visit her only living relative, uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey). A wealthy, reclusive widower, the Don lives on a farm in rural Spain, in an enormous, spider-infested house. But beneath the pleasantries of this property, darker obsessions squirm toward the light; Viridiana takes its first big tilt toward the perverse when Don Jaime successfully convinces his niece to don the wedding dress his bride was wearing when she died—a transgression that tests her compassion, facilitates her exit from the church, and sets the stage for misfortune to come.

“I didn’t deliberately set out to be blasphemous,” Buñuel would later cheekily proclaim, when questioned about the response to Viridiana. “But then Pope John XXIII is a better judge of such things than I am.” You’d have to be as sightless, however, as the blind beggar introduced in the film’s second half not to see that Viridiana was designed to ruffle feathers, devout ones included. Buñuel, an occasionally lapsed atheist, irreverently spoofed religious imagery and iconography most of his career, as far back as his still-shocking debut, avant-garde eyeball slicer “Un Chien Andalou.” (Only symbolic animals, perhaps, show up in his films more often; here, a cat pouncing on a mouse stands in for one sex scene.) In Viridiana, Christianity is twisted and perverted at nearly every turn: a crucifix that’s really a knife in disguise; Handel’s “Halle­lujah Chorus” accompanying a sinners’ bacchanal; a nun reduced to an object of lecherous desire; a crown of thorns set ablaze. In the film’s most infamous moment, a band of near-savage vagrants recreate the formation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, freezing in place around a dinner table. Buñuel knew what he was doing.

If the director’s aims weren’t specifically sacrilegious, that’s because Viridiana casts a much wider net of scorn. The film spares no one: not the Don, willing to destroy his niece’s place in the church to quell his loneliness and lust; not the Don’s illegitimate son, slick and selfish Jorge (Francisco Rabal); not the Don’s servant, Ramona (Margarita Lozano), complicit in his schemes; and not the beggars Viridiana eventually takes in, with the intention of turning her uncle’s farm into a kind of homeless shelter. They’re wretches, that whole final group—petty, ungrateful, uncouth, bickering, immoral. In the scandalous last act, they rampage through the main house, fighting and fucking and gleefully trashing the place. (“Don’t worry, miss, we’re all decent folk,” one of them asserts, while a brother in ruthless appetite attempts to force himself upon the nun—the second attempted rape she endures.) The implication, finally, is bitterly misanthropic: Viridiana’s pity is misplaced. Just as she erred by accommodating her uncle’s fetishlike requests, her experiment in humanitarianism conflates poverty with inherent goodness, resulting in a disheartening wakeup call. As the character succumbs to her baser instincts in the highly suggestive final scene, it’s with more resignation than relief. If you can’t beat ’em…

Mileage varies, as they say, on how darkly funny any of this is—though Buñuel, always a spirited ringleader, definitely revels in the anarchic misbehavior of the “beggar’s banquet,” visually quoting not just The Last Supper but also (if less directly) Tod Browning’s Freaks. One thing is certain: Viridiana, a tough satirical pill to swallow, could scarcely be more different than the film with which it shared the Palme. The eponymous long absence of Henri Colpi’s tender, unresolved drama refers to the 16 years that have elapsed since café owner Thérèse (Alida Valli) last saw her husband, who disappeared during World War II. But it’s also reflected in the quiet, spooky emptiness of the film’s suburban setting: a sleepy stretch of shops and power lines, intersected by a gentle river, on the outer edges of Paris. Like the Vienna of another postwar Palme winner, The Third Man, it’s a ghost town, haunted by the lingering tragedies of WWII.

The Long Absence (1961)

Early into the film, a tramp (Georges Wilson) wanders into town, singing a familiar tune, keeping to himself on his daily strolls. Thérèse, who’s settled into a relationship of convenience with another man, becomes convinced that this stranger is her presumed-dead husband, finally back from the war. Trouble is, he claims to have lost his memory years ago; distant and barely verbal, he says he’s not sure who he is or even why he’s there. Has Thérèse invented the resemblance to her MIA spouse, so desperate is she to believe that he might eventually come back? Is the tramp who she thinks he is? Is he even telling the truth about his amnesia? The Long Absence prolongs the agonizing mystery and uncertainty. What it’s capturing, in dramatic form, is the purgatorial state so much of Europe found itself thrust into around the middle of the 20th century. Thérèse, starving for impossible closure, and the tramp, so far gone from what he experienced on the battlefield that he doesn’t even recognize himself, are living out the long aftermath of the war, one pained conversation at a time.

That conflation of romantic and wartime trauma is familiar. Perhaps it recalls another French film from just two years earlier, Alain Resnais’ doomed love poem Hiroshima Mon Amour. The similarities aren’t accidental. Colpi edited Hiroshima—in fact, he’s arguably better known for his influential work on that film and Resnais’ other early milestone, Last Year At Marienbad, than he is for any of the movies he directed. What’s more, he co-wrote the screenplay with Marguerite Duras, who penned Hiroshima Mon Amour. The Long Absence doesn’t have the unforgettable power of their earlier collaboration, partly because it applies a straight, minimalist approach to its storytelling, rather than the flurry of evocative flashbacks that make the Resnais project one of the great movies about memory. But the melancholic ache is shared, and conveyed by Colpi through such small, poignant touches as the way the tramp carries around a scrapbook of magazine clippings, maybe finding some measure of purpose—and certainly a metaphor for his fragmented headspace—in the ritual.

The Long Absence is no lost masterpiece, but it does deserve a more lasting legacy; it’s not even available on DVD and seems to have been released on VHS only in France—a pretty sad fate for a movie that won the Palme D’Or. Viridiana, by contrast, has overcome early, mixed reviews and aghast reactions to secure its place in the upper echelons of Buñuel‘s canon, alongside L’Age D’Or and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. So why the draw? Viridiana may have hopelessly hung the jury; the love-hate response it tends to provoke could have played out in miniature with the deciding body, the detractors choosing The Long Absence as elegant, tasteful counterpoint. Or this could have been a case of right place, right time: 1961 would have been a strange year, after all, for a French film festival to ignore a significant French film in competition, what with the country in the throes of one of cinema’s most exciting movements. Ultimately, though, issuing that split decision feels almost like a shiver of hesitancy, the equivalent of an avowed nonbeliever praying on their deathbed, just to be sure. Thumbing your nose at the pope is great and all, but maybe it helps to have a backup winner in case he was right all along.

Did it deserve to win? I have my own doubts about Buñuel’s scalding prank of a movie, deep and thick as a tar pit in its cynicism. (You don’t need to be a believer yourself to be unnerved by its bleak worldview.) But at a Cannes not exactly bursting with future classics, Viridiana does feel like the most enduring selection—a major statement from a major artist whose capacity to rankle knows few equals. As far as the festival’s repeat invitees go, only Lars Von Trier, perhaps, has a more consistent reputation for scandalizing. His own Palme winner will be the subject of this feature before too long.

Up next: Speaking of controversy-courting directors! With Twin Peaks returning to TV, it’s a good time to revisit David Lynch’s other big achievement of 1990, Wild At Heart.