How Is Spanish National Identity Constructed On The Screen?

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Spain has had a tumultuous history when it comes to national identity, especially during the period of films we have studied on this course. Ranging between the 1940s and 1980s Spain went through major social changes, the latter being emblematic of these transitions and the way national identity was portrayed. With each film and their respective director depicting national identity through their own lens, whether it being critical or not, there are many recurring themes. Many can be closely tied with the idea of ‘españolada’, which I will be exploring within this essay. The film that I have chosen to examine in context of Spanish national identity is Luis Buñels 1962 Viridiana. Released twenty two years into Franco dictatorship, it was unsurprisingly banned within Spain, receiving an abundance of criticism due its uncatholic nature. It was even deemed as ‘blasphemous’ by the official newspaper of the Vatican. Religion is one of the dominant themes within Viridiana, along with social hierarchy, Buñuel creatively uses fetishism and voyeurism to express his dissatisfaction with society in Francoist Spain. He had a cynical outlook on humanity which can be rooted with his use of surrealism, a movement that explored ‘those feelings that are deeply embedded in the unconscious but which the majority of individuals are unwilling to acknowledge. Throughout this essay, I deal with how Buñuel constructed national identity by serving criticism on religion and the bourgeoisie two aspects that build towards national identity.

The term ‘españolada’ was coined during the Franco period as an approach to how Spain was represented in film ‘españolada is a pejorative word that refers to a clichéd idea of Spanish culture, centred around flamenco dancing, rural peculiarities, bullfighting and copla singers’ in turn stereotyping the Spanish characters and culture. Creating an exaggerated idea of Spanish national identity aiding Franco’s political agenda. Catholicism became synonymous with ‘españolada’ for this exact reason, playing an important role in the government’s plan to create a united and harmonious country. People looked toward the church for guidance to being a ‘good’ Spanish man or woman. Needless to say, Catholicism’s role in Spanish society reflected in the way national identity is constructed in film.

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In Viridiana, Buñels is overtly critical of Catholicism. He was openly against the Catholic Church, and through his work he tried to unmask the fruitlessness of Christianity, but rather steers his work towards probing ‘[…] sexual anxieties and frustration. Viridiana, the pious nun being the link between the church and suppressed sexual desires. Throughout the film Buñuel explores the idea of religious fetishism challenging the viewers with one of the most dominant aspect of Spanish national identity. For example, in a few scenes we see Viridiana with religious artefacts such as the large wooden crucifix and the crown of thrones, these religious props are fetishes as they are used beyond their practical means. Furthermore, we see Viridiana faint when gripping the skip rope being used as a belt by the beggar that was trying to rape the novice nun, highlighting the ‘deep-seated sexual fear and inhibition’ that would have formed during her time in the monastery. The director uses cinematic techniques when fetishizing the protagonist such as slow pan shots and the focus on repeating motifs (legs and stokings), by doing this Buñuel is rejecting the conventional ideals of society that where both thrust upon him during his upbringing in catholic Spain and its education system, as well as, for Viridiana and her time in the monastery. Buñuel’s own sexual reservations; like Viridiana, were tied by the shackles imposed on them by the Catholic Church. He claimed that he did not plan on even making such a film but rather it ‘[…] grew out of certain erotic and religious obsessions of his childhood’. Therefore, as an adult with a grasp of reality the illusion of religion being fruitful shattered, which he exemplifies within Viridiana. Piety does not always lead to a positive outcome, drawing a new spin on how national identity should be reconsiders and perhaps not be linked so closely with national identity. Viridiana’s altruistic intentions of taking in a group of beggars, is thrown back in her face; ‘People, and the world, cannot be changed, and acceptance of things as they are is the only course’.

Another predominate theme within the film that Buñuel scrutinizes is the Spanish bourgeoisie, providing the viewer with a harsh, and arguably necessary, portrayal of unjust societal structure that he believed to be frustrating part of the Spanish national identity. The director once said, ‘I am against conventional morality’ where for him middle-class morality was immoral. Which is evident throughout the unfolding of Viridiana. The main course of events take place on the estate of Viridianas uncle, a man belonging to the bourgeoisie. The house and all that is it destroyed by the group of beggars that the nun takes in. The film gives us a rough understanding of the societal microcosm of Spain in the fifties and sixties, Buñuel representing the divide between the peasants, the aristocracy and the church. Successfully disrupting the ‘polite society’ seen within the film, and reconstructing the national identity. An emblematic moment of Buñuels criticism of the structural nature of the bourgeoisie, is when Jorje, the new owner of the estate, invite the housekeeper to eat at the table with him. Unintentionally, for Buñuel this moment has major significance ‘[…] foreshadow the future downfall of traditional hierarchies’, something that Spain would experience in the near future due to the collapse of Francoism after Franco’s death. Buñuel criticism of the societal hierarchy is thus forcing the spectator to question how society is run. Furthermore, the director intended the audience to explore their own sexual desires whether they conscious of this or not, constructing a new sense of what he believed should be an important aspect of national identity, unashamed by bourgeoisie conventions. A scene that stands out is when Viridiana milks a cow in the barn, the phallic action of pulling on the teat is suggestive to the audience, how we read the scene tells us something about ourselves, how our mind jumps to something so sexual when is in fact an innocent action. Viridiana’s discomfort suggests the same thoughts went through her own mind. Buñuel makes his audience face up to their own sexual desires and the reality that we still have ‘unconventional’ thoughts despite what conventional bourgeoisie society attempts to hide.

To conclude, in Buñels Viridiana he challenging the notion of national identity by debunking major aspects of Spanish society rather than constructing a new outlook on Spanish identity.


  1. Edwards, Gwynne, A Companion to Luis Buñuel (Woodbridge: Tamesis 2005)
  2. Edwards, Gwynne, The Discreet Art of Luis Buñuel, 2 edn (London: Marion Boyars Publishers 1997)
  3. Malcolm, Derek, ‘Luis Buñuel: Viridiana’, The Guardian, 1 April 1999
  4. Martin-Márquez, Susan, ‘Coloniality And The Trappings Of Modernity In ‘Viridiana’ And ‘The Hand In The Trap”, Cinema Journal, 51 (2011), 96-114 [Accessed 22 January 2019]
  5. Mellen, Joan, The World of Luis Buñuel: Essays in Criticism, ed. by Joan Mellen (New York: Oxford University Press 1978)
  6. Mira, Alberto, ‘Españolada’, Academic Dictionaries And Encyclopedias, 2019 [Accessed 26 January 2019]
  7. Riera, Emilio G., The World of Luis Buñuel: Essays in Criticism, ed. by Joan Mellen (New York: Oxford University Press 1978)
  8. Vincent, Mary, ‘Spain’ in Political Catholicism in Europe, 1918-1965, ed. by Tom Buchanan and Martin Conway (Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011), pp. 97-128

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