The American Society of Cinematographers

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Superman Returns
DVD Playback
The Passenger
Funny Games
Post Focus
ASC Close-Up
Viridiana (1961)
1.66:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $29.95

After several years in Paris, the United States and Mexico, Luis Buñuel returned to his native Spain to direct Viridiana, a masterful satire about a nun who is an utter failure at realizing her good intentions. This playful yet emotionally resonant film mocks the devout and the lecherous in equal measure, and a jury at Cannes recognized its excellence by awarding it the Palme d’Or. The Vatican was not amused, however, and when the Catholic Church denounced the film, Franco’s government ordered all copies burned. Luckily, a couple of prints avoided destruction and were screened illegally for years, until lawyers were able to reassign authorship of the film to Mexico.

Today Viridiana retains its power to shock, but it is much, much more than mere provocation. Buñuel is as affectionate as he is scathing, and he clearly loves his characters both in spite of and because of their limitations. When Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) invites paupers into her rich uncle’s home and they destroy it, the viewer is invited to vicariously enjoy the revelry while also sharing Viridiana’s deep hurt over the limits of her own idealism.

The complexity of Buñuel’s worldview finds its visual corollary in Jose F. Aguayo’s rich cinematography, which combines precise, expressive camera moves with deep-focus compositions that allow the viewer to actively participate in the drama. Aguayo and Buñuel achieve something truly marvelous by injecting the director’s trademark surrealism into a Neorealist aesthetic; the film uses several non-professional actors and location shooting to create a realistic tone, yet time and again the meticulous lighting and compositions find the extraordinary in the ordinary. When a character pulls out a cross that doubles as a pocketknife, the irony of the metaphor is given an added dimension simply by the shimmering manner in which Aguayo lights the object. The moment is funny, surprisingly affecting and even spiritual, and there are many such multi-layered shots in the picture.

It appears that the Criterion Collection team unearthed the best available elements for this DVD. Though some scratches on the source material are evident, overall the new digital transfer is luminous and will come as a revelation to anyone who has suffered through the murky prints and video copies of the film that have been circulating for years. The clarity of the Spanish dialogue has been improved as well, with an exemplary new subtitle translation and a crisp Dolby monaural track.

This is the fifth Buñuel film Criterion has released on DVD, and the company continues its practice of supplementing Buñuel’s films with illuminating extras. There are two wonderful new interviews: star Silvia Pinal discusses the movie’s production history and the actions taken to save the film after it was banned, and Cineaste editor Richard Porton contextualizes the film within Buñuel’s career and in terms of Spanish politics and history.

The disc also features a 37-minute excerpt from an episode of the French television series Cineaste de notre temps; the program is a true gift for Buñuel aficionados, as it contains some hilarious interviews with the director as well as comments from various collaborators and critics. (There is even a segment featuring a priest who offers a surprisingly complex — and completely accurate — assessment of Buñuel’s treatment of religion.) A bombastic trailer for Viridiana’s American release completes the supplemental material.

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