Nº5 2020 (2)

The Sounds of the Sinners

Philip Brubaker (http://philipbrubaker.com)

 this scene from Viridiana (Luis Buñuel 1961), an impromptu prayer meeting occurs on the grounds of a farm estate.  The group is made up of transient peasants and the title character, a nun, who leads the prayer. 

But this prayer is juxtaposed with the sounds of construction workers who labor quickly to meet a deadline.  The mash-up creates a competition between those who pray and those who labor, each interrupting the other.  Buñuel’s use of sound falls in the category of anempathetic sound, which presents indifference to what is on screen.

Anempathetic sound has no morality of its own, yet it can emphasize tragedy or horror simply by presenting an indifferent reaction to it.  The persistent sound of waves breaking on the shore in the example from Jaws (Steven Spielberg 1975) shows the cruel indifference (of nature?) to the death of the boy whose bloody raft gets caught in the tide.  Michel Chion writes, “On the screen the anempathetic effect has taken on such prominence that we have reason to consider it to be intimately related to cinema’s essence – it’s mechanical nature.” (1994: 8).  Mechanical sound examples can inspire a human response, such as in mainstream films like Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock 1960) and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino 2003).  Whether the response is disgust or humor, these cases present aural evidence as to how Chion’s principles operate; the callousness or irony of violence can be underscored and emphasized through the creative and intentional use of anempathetic sound.  

However, the example in Viridiana is unique, because it is not overtly violent and the anempathetic sound in this scene has an ambiguous or dual association.  Luis Buñuel is a well-known atheist (Manceaux 1960) and member of the Communist party, and this enigmatic scene from Viridiana has Marxist underpinnings in how it positions workers against the religious.  By interpreting the scene through the broad terminology of Michel Chion, Buñuel’s political and religious critique finds purchase in ways that few film critics and scholars have been able to explain.

The video essay concludes with a quote from Lenin that explicates the party line on the distinction between working and religious classes (Lenin 1965).  Throughout Viridiana, visuals such as the crucifix switchblade and Last Supper parody communicate the auteur’s heretical beliefs; his use of sound offers a more subtle critique.  The argument rests on the notion that Buñuel uses the mechanical nature of cinema to convey his ideas in a way that is not didactic, but fully embraces the potential of the medium.

It is in this way that the thesis argues that Buñuel’s allegiance is with the workers in this scene, and the filmmaker supports them using the cinematic tools of juxtaposition.  As stated in the video, Chion’s definition of anempathetic sound is minimal, and open to interpretation.


  • Chion, Michel (1994) “Projections of Sound on Image.” Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen. Translated by Claudia Gorbman, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Lenin, V.I. (1965) Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 10, Moscow, Progress Publishers, pp. 83-87.
  • Manceaux, Michele (1960) “Luis Bunuel: athee grace a Dieu”, L’ Express, May 12, pp. 41.

How to cite this article: Brubaker, P. (2020) The Sounds of the Sinners/El sonido de los pecadores. Tecmerin. Revista de Ensayos Audiovisuales, 5(2). ISSN: ISSN: 2659-4269.

Other videoessays in this issue:

Moving through Geometric Compositions: The Spectator’s Experience of Film Space
Farshad Zahedi & Francisco J. Jiménez Alcarria (UC3M)

Adrià Guardiola Rius (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

Facce della stessa medaglia- Sides of the same coin
Adrià Guardiola Rius (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

Ways of Coming Home. Affective Cartographies, Memory and Visuality
Tayri Paz García (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) y Jochen Vivallo (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid)