La piel que habito (or, The Skin I Live In), the latest film by Pedro Almodóvar, is competing in this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but you have to go back 50 years to find the last - and only - Spanish winner of the Palme d’Or for best film. Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana took the honor on May 18, 1961, sharing it with French film Une aussi longue absence. The celebration was short, however. The very next day an article appeared in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper, decrying the movie as blasphemous and leading to its immediate banning in Spain. If that detail alone weren’t enough to make you check out Buñuel's scandalous masterpiece, here are a few more to whet your appetite...
Based on a wet dream Buñuel took the name of the main character, Viridiana, a novice nun given leave to visit her rich sick uncle, from an obscure 13th-century Italian saint (aka Verdiana), a contemporary of St Francis of Assisi who was known for her charity and for walling herself up in a tiny cell for 34 years. However, the first part of the film, in which the uncle drugs and tries to rape Viridiana, stems from a teenage fantasy Buñuel used to have about Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, the Scottish wife of Alfonso XIII and grandma of the current King Juan Carlos. In the dream, after being undressed by her servants, the queen gets into bed and drinks a glass of milk spiked with a powerful sleeping drug. At which point, Buñuel explains, he slips in besides her and accomplishes “a sensational debauching.”
Produced by a cockfighter’s son The film marked Buñuel’s return to Spain after two decades of exile in France, the US and Mexico, and was produced by Gustavo Alatriste, a colorful Mexican whom he met on his first post-Civil War trip back to Spain in 1960. Son of a cockfight impresario, Alatriste was a magazine publisher, furniture entrepreneur and land owner, who was prompted to propose he finance Buñuel’s next film by his then wife, actress Silvia Pinal. “Look, Gustavo," responded Buñuel to Alatriste’s suggestion, "I earn a lot of money and I don’t like anyone interfering with my plots.” “I also have my conditions,” replied Alatriste. “You will have to let me pay you double what you earn and we will film your movie in Spain, where you haven’t been back since you were exiled, and the star will be Silvia Pinal.” Thus, Viridiana was born, with Pinal in the lead.
Starring a down-and-out The guy who plays one of the 12 beggars who Viridiana takes in - as penitence for the guilt she feels over her uncle's suicide - in the second half of the movie was a real-life down-and-out who was allowed to live in the studio courtyard during filming. “The man paid no attention whatsoever to my directions, yet he’s marvelous in the movie,” remembers Buñuel in his autobiography, My Last Breath. As Buñuel recalls, some time after the movie the actor was apparently recognized on a bench in Burgos by some French tourists, who praised his performance. Jumping up, he collected his belongings and marched off, saying, “I’m going to Paris. There, at least, they know who I am.” He died on the way, notes the director.
Improved by the censors The Spanish censors rejected the film’s original ending in which Viridiana knocks on her male cousin’s door and goes inside, with the door closing gradually behind her. Instead the censors’ suggestions led Buñuel to come up with the idea of having Viridiana join a card game between her cousin and his mistress, thus coyly suggesting a ménage à trois between the characters. “It’s a magnificent ending, much better than the original,” said Buñuel.
Burnt to a crisp Following the banning of the film, José Muñóz-Fontán, the director of the Spanish cinema institute who had collected Viridiana’s Palme d’Or, was immediately sacked and all copies of the film in Spain were burnt - though one thankfully found its way to Paris. After a screening in Milan, the pubic prosecutor closed the theater, impounded the reels and told Buñuel that he would be thrown in jail for a year if he as much as set foot in Italy. The film was also banned in Surrey, England. The movie caused such a stir that Franco himself asked to take a look and, Buñuel’s producers told him, “found nothing very objectionable about it.” “After all, given what he’d seen in his lifetime, it must have seemed incredibly innocent to him,” commented Buñuel. Nevertheless, Franco decided not to overturn its prohibition and the film wasn’t screened in Spain until April 9 1977, the same day the Communist Party was legalized.
On Wednesday night TCM Clásico will be showing Viridiana at 10pm alongside a short documentary, Regreso a Viridiana (9.30pm). The same evening, the channel will also host a special screening of the movie at Madrid’s Berlanga theater.