Religion has long been a favorite subject of satire for renegade artists intent on dismantling repressive orthodoxies. For Luis Buñuel, that immortal bad boy of world cinema, the reactionary strain of Catholicism that permeated Franco-era Spain became an irresistible and recurring target, resulting in career highlights such as the unmistakably anticlerical comedy of 1930’s L’âge d’or and the kinky provocations of 1961’s Viridiana. The latter film, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival but was later condemned by the Vatican and banned from being released in Spanish theaters, follows the story of a young woman whose plans to become a nun are disrupted by an encounter with her lecherous uncle and by her ill-fated attempts to discipline an unruly band of paupers. Climaxing with a perverse reimagining of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Viridiana stands as one of the director’s most relentless explorations of a morally corrupt world beyond the reach of spiritual salvation.
This week on the Criterion Channel, we’ve paired Buñuel’s masterpiece with Spanish filmmaker Chema García Ibarra’s 2013 short Mystery, another irreverent take on religious faith, which won the Prix UIP for best European short film at the Berlin International Film Festival. In this off-kilter portrait of a middle-aged woman who dreams of escaping the daily grind of manual labor and housework, García Ibarra mines absurd, exquisitely deadpan humor from an alleged local visitation from the Virgin Mary, who is rumored to have taken up residence in a man’s body, from which she speaks to believers through his neck. With the program now live on the Channel, we reached out to García Ibarra over e-mail for his thoughts on Buñuel’s legacy and Spanish society’s fraught relationship with Catholicism. His responses were translated from the Spanish by Valeria Rotella.
You’ve cited Buñuel as a major influence on your work. Can you tell me about your first memories of seeing his films, and the first time you encountered Viridiana?
When I was young, it was common to see the image of the eye being slit open in Un chien andalou in television programs and in books on cinema. It’s a foundational and unforgettable image for all those who see it, including my teenage self. Many years went by before I was able to see the film in its entirety. I was in high school when I started getting interested in auteur cinema through the usual names—Bergman, Dreyer, Godard—and the first Buñuel film I saw was The Exterminating Angel, on television. Finding him was a shock and a joy: here was a director whose sense of humor was an important part of his world! Furthermore, his was the kind of humor that most interested me: dark and macabre, cruel, very Spanish. I saw Viridiana soon after, also on television, and it brought me great relief to finally have the feeling that I had found my favorite director.
To me, Viridiana is one of his most compact films, with the fewest number of fissures. All the sequences are perfectly measured; each shot tells you something; the actors are impeccable; the comedy is Buñuel at his darkest; and the music is used with so much intelligence and perversity. My favorite scene is the one in which Viridiana attempts to milk a cow, with her trembling hand trying to grab the udder. It highlights Buñuel’s favorite theme: the contradictions between Catholic morality, which represses and punishes sexual desire, and human nature, in which sexuality is a constant presence.
What do you think has made his work and his influence so enduring?
Buñuel is a unique auteur, with influences that don’t stem from the world of cinema. Those influences lie in literature, along the line that connects Sade with Matthew Gregory Lewis, Benito Pérez Galdós with Octave Mirbeau, Benjamin Péret with Joris-Karl Huysmans. I’m afraid that I don’t detect enough of Buñuel’s influence on the current generation. He is foundational in the history of world cinema, not just Spanish cinema, for being the best at bringing a surreal spirit to film. Surrealism entails having a free spirit, independent of any creative restrictions—unhinged, savage, instinctive, irrational. I have always seen it as a precursor to punk, which I understand as a savage way of confronting artistic creation and a vital attitude of pure freedom. In punk, there are no norms except those one might choose to apply to oneself. Impulses are more powerful than reason, and provocation is taken on as a political attitude. All of that is inherited from the surrealist movement, which Buñuel served until his final days. In his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, we find one of the most punk acts in film history: the decision to have two different actresses play the same character. That’s a masterful, surrealist final act.
Like Buñuel, you find comedy in emotionally unsettling material.
I think that mix of comedy and drama is something intrinsically Spanish and cuts across all art forms: film, theater, literature, painting. The purest and most necessary comedy is the kind that goes hand in hand with drama. The most powerful humor, the kind that provokes the strongest feelings, can be found in the spaces it isn’t usually thought to inhabit.
Dark comedy has become ingrained in Spanish culture because it’s a way of confronting and combating tragedy, of generating something positive out of it. It’s a way of finding respite, which is why it’s the kind of humor with the most meaning and value. In Viridiana, there’s a leap from tragedy to comedy that astounds me: we see the lifeless body of Viridiana’s uncle, Don Jaime, hanging from a girl’s jump rope—a very dramatic, incredible image—and soon after, Buñuel cuts to a sequence set in the same spot, where the girl is seen jumping with that same rope.
Both Mystery and Viridiana center on the lives of female characters and how they are circumscribed by men. How did you arrive at this as a theme?
The central character of Mystery is inspired by the women in my family and my close social circles. I live in a city dominated by the shoe business, and it’s common for women to do most of the manufacturing work. My origins and surroundings have been and still are working-class, and my idea was to depict a member of this same class, someone who could be either my relative or my friend, and explore the dreams that do not belong to her socially—special dreams, cosmic ones. The stuff of science fiction, which is the maximal idea of escape.
I find Catholic ceremonies very beautiful and believe that a satirical vision of some aspects of Catholicism is compatible with a respectful vision of other aspects. There was sincere emotion regarding certain practices and mythical Catholic figures in Buñuel’s work, emotion that he expressed in spite of his total atheism.
Spain has always been a profoundly Catholic country. Catholicism has beautiful and profoundly surrealist rites: they take place in a space presided over by a man nailed to wood; the priests dress in tunics; there are esoteric symbols everywhere; terrifying figures fill the temples; there are visions of hell, martyrs. The sacraments are themselves surrealist acts: sleeping on bare boards, self-mutilating with nails and hot coals . . . absolutely irrational acts that invoke an overwhelming sense of poetry.
What’s next for you? Will the style you established in this film carry over into a feature?
That’s my intention. I’m currently working on a script for a feature. All of my films have the same style, with the same types of characters and visual processes: nonprofessional actors, shooting locations near my home, science fiction in domestic settings, dark humor . . . I hope to find a producer who shares that vision and would want to help me make it happen!