Viridiana (1961): Making of Bunuel’s Provocative Film

At the 1960 Cannes Festival, Buñuel was approached by the young director Carlos Saura, whose film Los Golfos had been entered officially to represent Spain.

Two years earlier, Saura had partnered with Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga to form production company called UNINCI. They were keen to get Buñuel to make a film in his native country as part of overall goal of creating uniquely Spanish brand of cinema.

Mexican actress Silvia Pinal was eager to work with Buñuel and talked her producer-husband Gustavo Alatriste into providing additional funding for the project with the understanding that the director, who Pinal described as “a man worshiped and idolized,” would be given “absolute freedom” in carrying out the work.

Buñuel agreed to work again in Spain when further support was provided by producer Pere Portabella’s company Film 59.

Buñuel and co-scenarist Julio Alejandro drafted a screenplay for Viridiana, whose narrative the critic Andrew Sarris has described as “too lurid to synopsize even in these enlightened times,” as it deal with rape, incest, necrophilia, animal cruelty and sacrilege.

He submitted it to the Spanish censor, who, to the surprise of everyone, approved it after requesting only minor modifications and one significant change to the ending.

Although Buñuel accommodated the censor’s demands, he came up with a final scene that was even more provocative than the scene it replaced: “even more immoral,” as Buñuel was later to observe.

Since Buñuel had adequate resources, top-flight technical and artistic crews, and experienced actors, filming of Viridiana (which took place on location and at Bardem’s studios in Madrid) went smoothly.

Buñuel submitted a cutting copy to the censors and then arranged for his son, Juan Luis, to smuggle the negatives to Paris for the final editing and mixing, ensuring the authorities would not have an opportunity to view the finished product before its submission as Spain’s official entry to the 1961 Cannes Festival.

Spain’s director general of cinematography José Muñoz-Fontán presented the film on the last day of the festival and then, on the urging of Portabella and Bardem, appeared in person to accept the top prize, the Palme d’Or, which the film shared with the French entry Une aussi longue absence, directed by Henri Colpi.

Within days, l’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official organ, denounced the film as an insult not only to Catholicism but to Christianity in general.  As a result, Muñoz-Fontán was dismissed from his government post, the film was banned in Spain for the next 17 years, all mention of it in the press was prohibited, and the two Spanish companies UNINCI and Film 59 were disbanded.

“When today I amuse myself by making useless calculations, I realize that Buñuel and I shared more than two thousand meals together and that on more than fifteen hundred occasions he knocked on my door, notes in hand, ready to begin work. I’m not even counting the walks, the drinks, the films we watched together, the film festivals.”–Jean-Claude Carrière on his collaboration with Buñuel.

Buñuel made two more films in Mexico with Pinal and Alatriste, El ángel exterminador (1962) and Simón del desierto (1965).

Alatriste had been the one producer who gave him the most freedom in creative expression.