Set in a Franco-era Spain that has made only the barest of concessions to modernism (there are telephones and cars), but remains fully locked down under Catholicism at its most patriarchal and reactionary, Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana is satire at its most profound and tragic.

The title character (Silvia Pinal) is about to take her vows in a convent when her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), her only surviving relative, asks her to visit him at his moribund farm and estate. Viridiana hasn’t seen her uncle since she was a child, but is pressured by her Mother Superior to visit for a few days.

At the estate she encounters an uncle both genial and mad. Obsessed with his deceased wife, he is immediately transfixed by Viridiana’s resemblance to her. He is aided in his obsession by his loyal maid, Ramona (Margarita Lozano), who is in the grip of a masochistic crush on her employer. Viridiana quickly becomes aware that things on the estate are not quite as they should be and does her best to return to the security of the convent. However, both Don Jaime and Ramona, through a shifting combination of threats, gentle persuasion, emotional blackmail and stratagems that are perverse, but oddly affectionate in their intensity, act to keep her on the estate. To maintain a semblance of selfhood in this triangle, Viridiana opens the estate to the local beggars. The beggars can’t believe their luck and do their best to milk this opportunity for all its worth. This act of charity and misguided social enterprise spirals into a denouement of inspired sacrilege. Viridiana’s piety is further challenged by the arrival of Don Jaime. Her uncle’s illegitimate son also turns up with his girlfriend, seeking to not only inherit the estate but also acquire a mistress and/or wife.

To reveal more about the plot of Viridiana would spoil the pleasure found in a film that steadily moves from naturalism into a different kind of reality without becoming a half-dream, half-waking nightmare in the way that many other Buñuel films do (such as L’Age d’or [1930], Belle de jour [1967] or Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie [1972]). Viridiana is a satire that gains power through its calm, but ever mounting accumulation of imagery – a crown of thorns, a wedding veil, a family portrait or a record-player – and behaviour that is both mundane and strange – the casual freakery of the beggars, the indifference of a grounds keeper, the neuroticism of Ramona, the self-delusion of Don Jaime (contrasted with the bored lechery of his son).

Like so many Buñuel films, Virdiana’s visual punch is delivered through indirection. In the main, everything looks as if nothing has changed in a million years and yet there is a constant sense of a madness that is about to flood the frame. Eventually it does, in one of the great dinner scenes of the movies.

As the great director’s Mexican period drew to a close – a near 20-year period of filmmaking that gave the world dazzling melodramas like Abismos de pasión (Wuthering Heights, 1954) and corrosive meditations on religion like Nazarin (1959) – Buñuel was approached by Franco’s Ministry of Culture to return to Spain to make a film (partly due to the publicity the filmmaker received for gaining a Special Mention award at Cannes for The Young One [1960]). Buñuel leapt at the chance to play the prodigal son (as agent provocateur) and spent several weeks in his native land filming what the government must have thought would be a kind of sub-Zinnemann-like hymn to the purity of a true believer.

Whatever their motivations, it is clear the authorities’ reading of Buñuel was hopelessly misguided since the final result, unsurprisingly, is an artful attack on the dictatorship’s unearned sense of value and tradition. As Buñuel must have expected, the Franco government was horrified at what he completed and did their best to suppress the film. Buñuel’s cut was smuggled out of the country and received the ultimate accolade, a Palme d’Or at Cannes, followed by an even better stamp of approval for Buñuel, condemnation by the Catholic Church.

Viridiana is arguably the film that brought Buñuel to the new ’60s film audience (the climactic “Last Supper” scene featuring the beggars was referenced in M*A*S*H [Robert Altman, 1970]), and solidified his status as one of the giants of that decade’s film culture along with Fellini, Godard, Bergman and others. Approaching old age, Buñuel would remain forever young with his subsequent films. Certainly Viridiana kicked off another golden period for the director; immediately followed by El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962) and Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of A Chambermaid, 1964) and continued into the ’70s with Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974) and Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977).

In more recent years, when irony is often confused with a hyper-awareness of pop culture detritus rather than sensitivity towards new orthodoxies that need blasting, Viridiana stands out as a refreshing beacon of what is possible in not just satire or black comedy, but film, period. Buñuel’s complexity shines out in this and his other masterpieces not simply because his attack on religion, class and moribund traditions is so precise, but also because it is an attack from an insider who chose to live outside. In returning to Spain to make Viridiana, Buñuel delivered his own passionate response to the question “can you ever go home again?”

Viridiana (1961 Mexico/Spain 90 mins)

Prod Co: Producciones Alatriste/Films 59/UNINCI Prod: Gustavo Alatriste, Pere Portabella Dir: Luis Buñuel Scr: Julio Alejandro, Luis Buñuel Phot: José Fernández Aguayo Ed: Pedro del Rey Prod Des: Francisco Canet

Cast: Silvia Pinal, Fernando Rey, Francisco Rabal, José Calvo, Margarita Lozano, José Manuel Martín, Victoria Zinny, Teresa Rabal, Lola Gaos