At the suggestion of her mother superior, innocent novitiate Viridiana pays a visit to her wealthy uncle, Don Jaime, only for him to rape her and commit suicide. Renouncing her vocation, she opens the estate that she has inherited with her illegitimate cousin, Jorge, to the locals beggars, who proceed to take licentious advantage of their hospitality.
Despite a terror of women that dated back to his childhood, Luis Buñuel had always nursed a fantasy of drugging a beautiful woman who resembled the English Queen of Spain, Victoria Eugenia, and seducing her as she lay helpless before him. In developing this disquieting reverie, he had envisaged his victim as being a nun, who would breach the convent's rules of solitude by allowing society's detritus to sample its largesse, only for them to abuse her charity by turning the sanctuary into a grotesque parody of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper, complete with an accompanying `Hallelujah Chorus' from Handel's Messiah.
Quite how Spanish Under-Secretary of Cinema José Muñoz-Fontan failed to recognise this as a scurrilous satire on both the Francoist regime and the Catholic Church is one of film history's little miracles. But the fact that he had sufficient faith in the returning prodigal's integrity to allow the picture to screen unseen at Cannes, confidant that the changes to the screenplay that he had recommended had been made in full, suggests that something other than divine intervention had ensured that Viridiana won the Palme d'Or and restored Buñuel to the forefront of European art cinema. What made Buñuel's triumph all the more ironically sweet was that this `sacreligious and blasphemous' travesty (as the Vatican newspaper *L'Osservatore Romano *dubbed it) - which had been named after an obscure saint, who was always depicted with a crucifix, nails and a crown of thorns - was filmed in Madrid alongside Nicholas Ray's King Of Kings. But Buñuel's devastating parable shunned biblical opulence and clothed its outcasts in rags that had been purchased from street beggars, one of whom was cast as the drunken brute who tries to molest Silvia Pinal. Such authenticity emphasised Buñuel's contention that `we do not live in the best of all possible worlds'. But it also reinforced his unswerving determination to expose the hypocrisy of an institution that he believed had betrayed its flock by siding with the Fascists during the Civil War. Franco later claimed he couldn't understand the fuss Viridiana had generated. He clearly hadn't been paying attention.
Buñuel's satire aimed at the Church and Franco regime remains a triumphant piece of powerful cinematic art.