The Viridiana Controversy Explained

Luis Buñuel sought to provoke. The legendary filmmaker, often hailed as one of the world's best, approached film as an opportunity to confront and outrage audiences, and, more importantly, critique the hypocrisies of the government, of the rich, and of the church. The famous story goes that Buñuel, along with co-director Salvador Dalí, filled his pockets with rocks in the likely chance that audiences would riot at the premiere of their 1929 film "Un Chien Andalou." Looking back over his life and career, you'll find a filmography intentionally wracked by scandal, and a life riddled with exile. Buñuel, as was his goal, pissed off all the right people. "In a world as badly made as ours," he once said, "there is only one road: Rebellion." 

Buñuel was born to wealthy parents and received a strict Jesuit upbringing, but eventually became completely disgusted with the power the church had over the local economy, and the gross, bland idiocy of the comfortable class. He famously said of his religious upbringing "I am still an atheist, thank God." Religious figures are typically objects of mockery in his films, and he regularly included intentionally blasphemous images; Catch his 1930 film "L'Âge d'Or" to see a man who looks an awful lot like Jesus Christ enacting a scene from The Marquis de Sade's "The 120 Days of Sodom" and a crucifix festooned with human scalps.

The controversy around "L'Âge d'Or" actually aided Buñuel's career, and the negative attention from the right-wing press (particularly, the boringly named League of Patriots) helped bolster his popularity, and he was able to continue to make movies — and enemies — for decades to come.


In early 1960, Luis Buñuel, had just angered American audiences with his production of "The Young One," a film about a young Black man on the lam who finds himself in a bizarre, sexual love triangle with a racist wannabe island lord and a young woman in his charge. It's a film about modern racism, and how it relates to sexual anxiety. And while it received accolades at Cannes, American critics hated it; a Harlem newspaper wrote that Buñuel ought to be strung up by his feet. 

That same year, Buñuel returned to Spain, one of his many home countries, with backing from Mexican producers, to make "Viridiana," a film about a Catholic nun (Silvia Pinal) who struggles with her faith in the face of her lecherous uncle (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey) and his retinue of hobos and perverts. In the film, Viridiana, on the cusp of taking her vows, is invited to her uncle's remote estate for unknown reasons. Her uncle begins making bizarre incestuous overtures, and it's implies that he wants to marry Viridiana, and also drug her and assault her. After a shocking twist that leaves Viridiana on her own, she elects to start a boarding house for the local homeless population. This will turn out very poorly for everyone as vagrants end up breaking into the place (Handel's "Messiah" on the soundtrack) leading to debauchery and more sexual crimes. In the film's most notorious scene, the vagrants re-enact Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

The ending scenes feature Viridiana, traumatized and changed, returning to her uncle's place, now occupied by her cousin and his wife, to stay there. It's implied at the end that Viridiana is going to join the two of them in an incestuous sexual polycule. The end.

"Viridiana" won the Palme D'Or at Cannes. As one might well imagine, the film was not well received by the Vatican.

The Accidental Threesome

The film's executive producer, Pere Portabella, describes in an essay in Close-Up (extrapolated from a 2009 speech) the fallout from "Viridiana." When it was awarded the Palme D'Or, Buñuel was in Paris unable to accept, so Portablla convinced Spain's governmental Director of Film José Muñoz Fontán to accept the prize, forcing the implication that the Spanish government tacitly approved of the film. This was Francisco Franco's Spain, by the way, not known for its openness to arts and liberal thinking. When Fontán brought the award back to Franco after Cannes, he was immediately fired. 

After Cannes, The Vatican authored an official editorial on "Viridiana" in the newspaper Osservatore Romano, where they decried the film for not just being anti-Catholic (it is), but also generally anti-Christian (which is kind of is; it implies that Christian charity will fail and that righteous acts are inspired by depraved lust). The Vatican didn't directly threaten or excommunicate anyone, but it was implied that Buñuel and company were on the outs with the Catholic Church. This was especially embarrassing to Franco, as Spain has a rigorous censorship process meant to scrub films of controversial material. The screenplay of any production had to be approved, and then the final film needed to be approved after completion. Ironically, this cycle of censorship led to an even more lascivious ending than originally intended; in the original draft of "Viridiana," it was implied that the title character merely went to bed with her cousin. In the final film, the filmmakers — under a direct suggestion from the Spanish censors — added the cousin's girlfriend to the scene to reinsert some dignity into the scene. Instead, now, it just looks like Viridiana is about to have a threesome with the two of them.

The Vanishing

In order to protect themselves from embarrassment, or merely because they wanted it censored entirely, "Viridiana" was erased from existence. All documentation pertaining to the film was destroyed; it's like it had never been made. In another ironic twist, because the film was officially buried, it means that it had never been made, and if it had never been made, Buñuel and the film's producers escaped any kind of censure. The provocateur won. About eight years later, the Spanish government recognized that "Viridiana" did exist, but, because it was backed by a Mexican production team, it was now a Mexican film. Then it was censored again. "Viridiana" was described as being "Blasphemous, anti-religious. Cruelty and disdain for the poor. Morbid and brutal, as well. A venomous, corrosive movie in terms of its filmmaking craftiness in combining images, reference and musical background." To my ear, that sounds like a glowing recommendation.

"Viridiana" has since been rescued from the garbage heap of censorship and fascism, having been restored and released widely by The Criterion Collection, and is currently available on The Criterion Channel. It would eventually be screened at the Vatican in 1977. In 2012, on the famed once-a-decade Sight and Sound poll, "Viridiana" came in as the 37th best film of all time. 

Buñuel, true to form, remained impish all the while. "I didn't deliberately set out to be blasphemous," he said, "but then Pope John XXIII is a better judge of such things than I am"