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The 1961 Luis Buñuel film, Viridiana, concerns the pious exploits of a young nun who lives in a small village. Meaning to do good in imitation of Jesus’ ministry, Viridiana leaves the convent and decides to take charge of the moral education of the village’s paupers. Despite her best intentions, she finds herself exploited, abused, and taken advantage of at every possible turn. Efforts undertaken to educate the village paupers in morality are an exercise in futility, a clear example of throwing pearls before swine. After the combined shock of multifarious trauma, Viridiana (Latin for Green) seemingly succumbs to the sin of the world by the film’s conclusion. Noted reviewer Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote at the time: “The theme is that well-intended charity can often be badly misplaced by innocent, pious people. Therefore, beware of charity.”
Since I have recommitted myself to Christianity, I have been moved to be vulnerable for the sake of personal growth. I don’t seek purely selfish gain, but also a belief that doing so is the only way that we as a people will ever live in peace with each other. Where before I had a hard shell, I find myself empathizing with the plight of others. Where before I would shrug with indifference at the discomfort of those around me, now I burst into tears at even the suggestion of tragedy. Each of these are products of loving others the way Jesus told us we should.
So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.
As for the problematic matter of seeking to assist those who would take advantage of our piety, I honestly think that’s just a risk we run. We know, of course, that not every needy person is a criminal or manipulative con artist but having been burned a time or two, it is easy to think of the needy in the same way. As the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy. As I think about my own life, I recall the stories told to me by Friends I come in contact with on a regular basis. Some may be Christian, and some guided instead by the Light, but many of them feel genuinely called to serve the less fortunate and make their living doing so. Even those I know to be agnostic or atheist are often led to serve others who do not possess what they do.
A Friend I know works in perhaps the worst section of town, which puts her in frequent, close contact with the sort of people most would avoid like the plague. The stories she tells are sometimes horrific, like, for instance, the time an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic threatened to shoot the entire staff. I’m not sure I could keep coming to work under those circumstances. One has to have a certain kind of mental toughness to not internalize the vast amount of negativity and potential for danger present there. And with that job, how does one balance the necessary traits of empathy without taking the sights and sounds of work home with them?
Michael Wood’s review of Viridiana states,
[The film is] a merciless look at a world that cannot be saved…that of [a] young woman’s attempt to rescue a small portion of the world’s unfortunates… the overall effect is more spirited than that sounds-because of the endless, irreverent life in the filmmaking itself, and because of Buñuel’s commitment to the possibility of change, even when it seems impossible.
But the blasphemy is not against Christ and the Father. It is against the belief in progress-or at least the conventional sense of it…[for example] Viridiana’s project for improving the beggars’ lives. The beggars are not evil or the dark side of virtue. They are the unruliness of life itself, a reminder that pleasure and curiosity and appetite can always turn to destruction and violence. This is not an argument against pleasure and curiosity and appetite, or an appeal for law and order. It is a picture of a society that doesn’t understand its own needs. Buñuel’s skepticism and his sense of outrage concern the smallness of our vision of progress, our narrow attempts to achieve it through rational or moralistic planning, and our anxious disregard of the disruptive forces without which no society would be human.
Truer words were never spoken. When we make plans to improve the lives of others, we should use caution, recognizing that pure rationalism alone does not take into account often irrational people. As the phrase goes, conditions are subject to change at all times. Human nature is too changeable, too fickle. This doesn’t mean we ought to shelve our dreams of changing the world, but that we should be sure to factor in a substantial margin of error. The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.