Grade: ANazarín (1958)

Director: Luis Bunuel

Stars: Francisco Rabal, Marga Lopez, Rita Macedo

Release Company: Sony Pictures Classics

MPAA Rating: NR

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Bunuel: Nazarin


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Adapted from Benito Pérez Galdós' novel and filmed in Mexico City and villages in the Cuautla region, Nazarín draws a sensitive portrait of a naïve and ineffective Catholic priest living among whores, beggars, and thieves in the early 1900's. One of Buñuel's favorites, Nazarín was reasonably successful, winning the 1959 Grand Prix International award at Cannes. In his autobiography, Buñuel notes that it nearly received the Prix de l'Office Catholique as well, with three jury members passionately arguing its case, "but, happily, they were in the minority."

Catholics who think this film sympathetic must be watching in a fog because it showcases the gentle priest Nazarin (Francisco "Paco" Rabal) as a delusional fool who does more harm than good for the people he tries to help. Despite daily robbings, the priest refuses to lock his door in the belief that resources should go to the ones who need it the most and, being sworn to a life of poverty, everyone needs his clothes and coins more than he does. That can be seen at different levels--while some deem Nazarín a "saint" others see his attitude as weakness and just take advantage of his generosity. The final alms-giving scene, in which the confused Nazarin is truly destitute himself, indicates that his previously proud "righteous" begging primarily serves to feed his own ego and represents little more than false humility--much like Simon's supreme asceticism freak shows in Simon in the Desert.

After befriending the suicidal Beatriz (Marga López), Nazarín inadvertently hides her sister Andara (Rita Macedo) when she is knifed by La Prieta (Rosenda Monteros) in a "cat" fight. The priest doesn't know what to do other than provide refuge, but this leads to eventual housefire disaster, and Nazarin hits the road with both Beatriz and Andara dolefully following like modern day disciples. Both women are devoted to him, and Nazarin dispenses spiritual counsel freely, as he does with the troubled Andara:

"What you've got is not witchcraft or demons. It's a well-known sickness which comes from the imagination. Through the imagination it must be cured. Besides a healthy life and exercise helps overcome sadness. Pray, and I say it'll go away."
One of the stronger and telling scenes occurs in a small village besieged by the plague. When the mayor tells Nazarin that any house is a good place to begin if he wants to help, he finds a young dying wife name Lucia and attempts to get her to visualize the kingdom of Heaven. She rejects his spiritual advice, asking only for her husband and lover, Juan, and the dejected priest can only leave her side after a fruitless endeavor.

Once again the church is visualized as an impotent force in the midst of so much misery, a theme continued with Nazarín's travels. An offer to work for extremely low wages leads to worker-management dispute and bloodshed, and his innocent intentions of travelling and teaching the two women are looked upon as scandalous by the church itself, but Buñuel questions larger notions of spirituality as well. In his autobiography, he states,
"In the end, belief and the lack of it amount to the same thing. If someone were to prove to me--right this minute--that God, in all his luminousness, exists, it wouldn't change a single aspect of my behavior. I find it rather hard to believe that God is watching me every second, that he worries about my health, my desires, my mistakes."
This is directly illustrated by the prisoner labeled "good" when he protects the helpless priest from thugs when he rejects the idea that he has acted nobly. Buñuel also blurs distinction between the spiritual and secular world when dealing with love. Nazarín states that he "loves" both women [platonically], ironically stating this while picking up a snail to indicate his sensibilities about truly loving all creatures. Buñuel doesn't dispute his mindset; however, both women are shown to have sexual desires for the priest. Andara is the more obvious, but she's not that obsessed with only Nazarín--she's perfectly happy with the sexual advances of a dwarf named Hugo (Jesus Fernandez) and later hits on the prisoner who had protected the priest. Beatriz is the more interesting love case—when she describes Nazarín's "sainthood," her mother instantly recognizes that her daughter is actually in love with the priest, causing shocked hysterical cries of "It's not true!"

Ah, but it is. And Beatriz equates sexual thoughts with sinfulness, so her attachment to the priest ends, and she returns to her abusive boyfriend Pinto (Noé Murayama). The surreal moments are relatively few in this wonderfully acted and underviewed masterpiece, a very typical Buñuel work that provokes questions about the role of religion in our lives that reflects his own thoughts: "Since I reject the idea of a divine watchmaker...I must consent to live in a kind of shadowy confusion." Whether or not you agree with Buñuel's cynical outlook, the film artist leaves plenty of ambiguity in Nazarín to spark lively post mortems.
 


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