This sticker is dangerous and inconvenient but I do love Fig Newtons

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Some brief thoughts on Luis Bunuel's "Viridiana," from a Catholic perspective

It's not the miracles, or the Resurrection, or the Virgin Birth, or "Love thy neighbor" that makes Christianity so hard. It's the forgiveness. Seven times Seventy-Seven means pretty much infinity in Bible-terms, and let's not forget John Paul II forgave the dude who shot him. Jesus offered himself up to die on a cross so that all of our sins could be forgiven, and all he's asking in return is that we always forgive. It's considered by many to be the hardest of Jesus's teachings. It strikes at the deadliest of the sins -- Pride -- because when we forgive someone who has wronged us, we have to let go of our self-righteous pride to do it.

"Viridiana" is not some kind of super-stealthy jujitsu Christian movie masquerading as an anti-Catholic comedy. It's ant-Catholic. Bunuel's film, in fact, might be better described as anti-Christian, due to its scathing attack on some of the basic tenants of Christianity, including a very un-PC critique of the poor. It's funny, and disturbing, and brilliant, and I loved it, but it holds a pretty unflattering mirror up to Christianity and says, "This is a religion of hypocrites. And these people over here, these 'poor', they're not worth your time. And in the end, you get nothing out of your religion except disappointment." I'm not sure how I can defend my love for a movie that so successfully and intelligently attacks and refutes my religion (not to mention the fact that Catholicism in particular is made to look especially ridiculous).

But I knew I loved this movie the moment Viridiana refused to forgive her uncle. All the debauchery, the faux-piety, the perversion, and the sin that acts against, overwhelms, and ultimately destroys Viridiana's faith can, in a way, be traced back to her own sin. By committing such a sin and refusing to forgive her uncle, Viridiana lays the tracks for her own spiritual train wreck. Here is a film that has no qualms about ridiculing one of the most socially acceptable of Christianity's teachings -- love for the poor -- but yet at the same time, gives a theologically perfect example of how refusing to forgive can damn your soul. Something changes in Viridiana the moment she refuses that apology. All the perversion and sexual licentiousness swirling around her in her uncle's house had no effect on her faith, but the moment she's called upon to live out the hardest of Christ's teachings, she fails, and with her failure her heart hardens just a little.

The rest of the film is Viridiana's attempt to make amends, but her heart continues to be hard toward her uncle. In the end her good works for the poor couldn't save her, nor could her seeming piety. "Judge not lest ye be judged" isn't a command not to judge, but a warning to remember that you'll get what you give out, so it's better for your soul to forgive. In Viridiana's case, she gave no comfort, no mercy to her uncle, and in the end, no mercy was given to her. She becomes the thing she hates, and God seems to have left her in despair just as she left her sad, dejected uncle. It's Bunuel irony at its finest.

Irony is considered by some to be the highest form of humor. I've read essays by philosophers who argue that God himself enjoys irony above all other forms. Bunuel's use of irony brilliantly attacks God and the Christian religion, but the film cannot escape one further ironic turn: In its attempts to reject and refute Christianity, the film shows just where a rejection of Christianity leads. Viridiana herself rejects Christianity (when she does not forgive) and it leads to her "doom." She ends the film a cynical, world-wearied woman, resigned to a life of empty pleasures. The bitter irony of her ultimate fate doesn't erase all of Bunuel's other pointed and intelligent (and funny) attacks against Christianity. They still stand and they still disturb the believing Christian even as she laughs heartily. But the strange irony of Viridiana's unchristian behavior being the cause of her eventual despair, is one of the things (among many) that enriches and complicates this film, and makes it a masterpiece.

In Matthew's gospel, Peter asks Jesus: "Lord, how many times must I forgive?" And just as Jesus answered, so Bunuel tells Viridiana: "Seven times seventy-seven." She doesn't have a problem giving away all her possessions like the rich young man from Matthew's gospel, but she goes away sad nevertheless. Forgiveness? That is a hard teaching. And "Viridiana" is a great film.

No comments: