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Luis Buñuel at the top of his game
on 30 October 2013
Luis Buñuel’s 1959 Mexican film, Nazarín is one of three Benito Pérez Galdós adaptations made with screenwriter Julio Alejandro. Together with Viridiana and Tristana the collaboration marks probably the highest peak in the Buñuel canon. This is a bold statement to make, but Galdós and Buñuel/Alejandro make for a perfect combination in their position on religion and the meaning it has (or doesn’t have) for Man. There is an eloquent yet deeply complex intellectual rigor to these films which is hugely impressive. Nazarín is usually approached as a typical Buñuel scathing dissection of the hypocrisy of organized religion and the way people practice their faith. After all, a healthy anti-religion aesthetic had been in his films from his surrealist beginnings onwards. From the priests and the tablets containing the Ten Commandments being towed across a room in Un Chien Andalou through to the boozy poker-playing priests of The Phantom of the Liberty religion (especially Catholicism) is attacked mercilessly. However, it’s important to see how important Galdós was in shaping Buñuel’s world view. His novels and plays pre-figured Buñuel taking almost an identical position of protest against the way Catholicism in Spain had resulted in a centuries-long history of heresy which had stultified the country in an ingrained culture of dogmatic repression. It would be mistaken however, to assume Galdós and Buñuel were atheistic. Buñuel got tired of his remark (“I’m still an atheist, thank God”) being quoted by people and in truth both of them never rejected Man’s need for faith. While attacking the dogma of the Spanish Roman Catholic church, both Buñuel and Galdós recognized this need and throughout their work there are sympathetic characterizations of nuns, priests and those who attempt (usually without success) to lead Christian lives. Such a figure of sympathy is the main character of Nazarín, the ‘Man of Nazareth’, Father Nazario.
Nazario (Francisco Rabal) is a Spanish-born priest practicing from a poor hotel room in a dingy quarter of a Mexican city at the turn of the 20th century during the military dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. He embodies the Christian values of love, compassion, forgiveness, humility, non-violence, purity of heart, poverty of spirit, faith and hope. In every respect Buñuel makes him an imitation of Christ, following the ideal of the medieval monk Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) who wrote: ‘He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, saith the Lord. These are the words of Christ; and they teach us how far we must imitate His life and character, if we seek true illumination, and deliverance from all blindness of the heart. Let it be our most earnest study, therefore, to dwell upon the life of Jesus Christ’. This overwhelming emphasis on imitative practice rather than rhetoric dooms Nazario to a life of daily victimization which (because he must always show love and forgiveness) leads to his hotel room being constantly burgled, people using and abusing his person, people helping themselves to anything they want from him, and his involvement with two prostitutes which compromises his position and leads him to flee the hotel, one of them having set fire to it. Most of the film is devoted to depicting the hapless priest peregrinating around the countryside seeking to bring help to various people, but in fact only causing trouble wherever he goes. He first agrees to do construction work only for bread which causes a labor dispute and bloodshed (he is walking away when we hear gunfire). This peregrination deliberately parallels the life of Christ as he bumps into Beatriz (Marga López) and Andara (Rita Macedo) - the two prostitutes who got him into trouble in the first place - and is forced into performing a ‘miracle’ which saves a child and convinces the two women they have to follow him in the manner of two apostles. Both resemble Mary Magdelene as former worshippers of the flesh turned faith-seekers. Nazario and his unwanted apostles enter a plague-ridden village and try to help a stricken woman, but are told to go away – she wants her husband, not some priest. Sanitary engineers arrive to emphasize the irrelevance of their position. Eventually the police catch up with Nazario for the arson of his hotel room and (it is hinted) his radical Christian teaching and lifestyle (sharing the company of not one, but two whores). Like Christ he is imprisoned, tortured, offered a chance to escape and has to wear a crown (of bandages). It is in prison that the key encounter with a fellow inmate who has protected him from a cruel thug takes place. Nazario thanks him and wants to save him by applying his usual Christian teaching, but the man just says, “Look at me, I only do evil…But what use is your own life really? You’re on the side of good and I’m on the side of evil. And neither of us is any use for anything”. Nazario is forced to admit that his Christian teachings have been a complete failure, the whole film laying down scene by scene the complete irrelevance of his religious position in the miserable, poisoned and cold world of pre-revolutionary Mexico. Even his two ‘apostles’ are shown to desire him more as a man than as a vessel of Jesus Christ and he is doomed to a lonely trudge along a road with a guard and the receipt of charity (a pineapple from a street vendor) for the first time. The drums on the soundtrack connote the drums of Buñuel’s birthplace of Calanda which started on Good Friday and went through to noon on Saturday ‘in recognition of the shadows that covered the earth at the moment Christ died’ as Buñuel says in his autobiography, My Last Breath. Unlike some viewers who see a positive ending here in which the priest finally learns how to accept charity rather than administering it, for me I think this final image is overwhelmingly negative. It is an image of the death of Christ in Father Nazario, a rejection of Christian teachings and the beginning of a true understanding of the world in which he lives. The ending of Viridiana reaffirms this position.
Father Nazario is a fool in Buñuel’s relentless demonstration of his irrelevance in the real world, but he is made sympathetic by the way his pure belief is contrasted with the hypocritical belief of the official Roman Catholic Church – the main target of Buñuel and Galdós’s attack. When his room burns down he flees first to his friend, Father Don Angelo who politely, but pointedly tells him that his presence in his house is an embarrassment to his mother (he means an embarrassment to him and the church he represents) and that he must leave in plain clothes. Later on his peregrinations Nazario meets a stagecoach whose horse is stricken and a Colonel and a priest are waiting on the side of the road. Nazario offers to help and observes how the Colonel upbraids a peasant for passing by without greeting him and the priest. The peasant has to go back and pass again, greeting in the proper manner. Nazario protests furiously to the Colonel – for him (and for Christ) all men are equal. The Colonel wants to shoot Nazario for his impertinence, but the priest stops him, dismissing him as a heretic priest. This alliance between the military administration and the Church is shown again later when another priest addresses Nazario (with a portrait of Porfirio Diaz on the wall), telling him that he’s an embarrassment to the Church and that he will be escorted to Mexico City separately from the other prisoners in order to lessen this embarrassment. Buñuel’s point is that although naïve, Nazario’s faith is pure, good and worthy of respect. It’s the official Roman Catholic Church that is corrupt, non-Christian (!) and worthy only of attack. Buñuel doesn’t attack Nazario for his naivety. In fact Rabal’s sensitive performance makes his plight rather tragi-comic in the manner of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, while it’s the society within which he exists that is depicted with unflinching harshness. Buñuel sets about wringing the neck of organized religion which is a pillar of this bourgeois society which both Galdós and he railed against all their creative lives. It is ironic then, that in addition to winning the international prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, Nazarín was also nominated by Catholic film critics for a major prize and to this day is considered an important and inspiring contribution to the religious discourse of our time. This of a film which demonstrates the irrelevance of Christ’s teachings in the world and the hypocrisy of organized religion!
Buñuel/Alejandro’s muscular scenario is supported by a plain and direct mise-en-scène worked out with cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Each scene is rendered simply with the minimum of fuss to give the impression of a series of Biblical parables playing out before our eyes. The only surrealistic touch depicts Beatriz’s erotic desire for Pinto (Noé Murayama), the man who drives her to epileptic-like fits, eye-lids all a-flutter and body writhing in orgasmic convulsions. Otherwise this is Buñuel at his most pure and austere, though compared with Robert Bresson, for example, the film still teems with the visceral energy of everyday life and the human circus with all its hypocritical emotions. It’s difficult to find fault with the film, hugely challenging and enthralling cinema as it is, but I have to take one star off my evaluation because of the rough transfer of this Yume Pictures DVD. The b/w images are not ideally sharp and there is blur when the camera pans or dollies across dark backgrounds. The 4:3 aspect ratio is in place with no distortion of the image, but the vertical sides of the image seem to have been sliced away as shown by the opening credits sliding out of frame and many set-ups where characters are squished too far to the edges. Foot fetishist as Buñuel was, he wouldn’t be happy to see the naked feet of the plague-stricken woman sliced off by this careless transfer! Still, the film is highly watchable and I warmly recommend it to all lovers of cinema. Nazarín absolutely demands to be seen, representing as it does a great director at the top of his game.