For the December issue of our church newsletter, I’ve been prone to write two kinds of articles. One: a rehash of the Best Christmas films ever (so if you haven’t watched It’s a Wonderful Life – go watch it already. And have a hankie ready for the film’s finale.) Two: a preview of holiday films to come, on occasion based on their literary pedigree (I’m looking forward to True Grit, based on a good book and a remake of a fine John Wayne film. Usually, I’m not thrilled with the idea of remakes, but since this is from the Coen Brothers, this is an exception.)
Instead, I’m going to write about an anti-Christmas film (really an anti-Christian film, but we’ll see in this context it’s the same thing.) Most films that attack the Christian faith take a safer route than the film I’m going to discuss. Many films, Elmer Gantry for example, attack the clergy. Well, most Christians are more than willing to admit that all have sinned and more than a few scoundrels have abused their roles as evangelists, pastors and priests. Some filmmakers (such as the Pythons when they publicized The Life of Brian) claim that they have no problem with faith itself, just with “organized religion”. But I see very little virtue in the apparent alternative, “chaotic religion.”
But Viridiana, filmed in Spain in 1961 by acclaimed writer/director Luis Buñuel takes a much bolder stand. It attacks Christianity on the grounds that acts of charity and compassion are futile and without worth.
The film tells the story of a young novice (the Silvia Pinal ably plays the title character) who is instructed by her Mother Superior to visit her uncle before she takes her vows. She has up until then had little contact with the uncle who financially supported her.
She obeys and visits her uncle (played by Fernando Rey) at his vast but decaying estate, and finds him to be a man of rather depraved tastes. He tells Viridiana that she reminds him of his late wife and asks the much younger woman to marry him. When she refuses him, he drugs her coffee and takes advantage of her (to an unclear degree.) After this incident, the uncle kills himself because of his guilt.
Viridiana learns she has inherited her uncle’s estate, but it is to be shared with her uncle’s illegitimate son, Jorge. Like his father, Jorge, is a man who pursues pleasure above all else.
Viridiana decides to open the estate to the poor in the village, inviting the blind, the crippled and the destitute. But they take advantage of her hospitality, staging a party in the house that becomes not just an orgy, but a mockery of the Last Supper.
In one of the film’s famed sequences, Jorge is seen trying to perform an act of kindness. He sees a man dragging a dog chained to his wagon. Jorge buys the dog from the man so it will no longer be abused. But they we see another man, another wagon and another dog even more greatly abused. The implication is any act of charity can only change a minute faction of the evil in the world.
The film implies that those who are charitable will be betrayed and abused and no lasting good will come of any of it. Better to “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we will die”.
But these charges come as no surprise to anyone who knows Scripture. Jesus acknowledged the futility of ending all need when He said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7.) His entire life is an example of generosity responded to with ingratitude, betrayal and violence.
But He came to save His enemies (Romans 5: 7 – 8). He came in the flesh that first Christmas, knowing that He had come to die. But His viewpoint is bigger than ours. He knew that after the cross would come the resurrection. We can know that acts of compassion are not futile because every gift we give in His name, He receives (Matthew 25:4.)