Nazarín (1959)


(director/writer: Luis Buñuel; screenwriters: from the book by Benito Perez Galdos/Julio Alejandro/Emilio Carballido; cinematographer: Gabriel Figueroa; editor: Carlos Savage; music: Rodolfo Halffter; cast: Francisco Rabal (Father Nazario), Marga López (Beatriz), Rita Macedo (Andara), Jesús Fernández (Ujo, The Dwarf), Ignacio López Tarso (Thief in church), Luis Aceves Castañeda (Parricide), Ofelia Guilmáin (Chanfa), Noé Murayama, (Pinto); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Manuel Barbachano Ponce; Azteca Films; 1959-Mexico-in Spanish with English subtitles)

“This is another fine example of Buñuel’s powerful films made during his exile in Mexico.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Nazarin won the Grand Prix International at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. It’s adapted by Luis Buñuel from the 1895 novel by the Spaniard Benito Perez Galdos. It’s Buñuel’s offbeat, tongue-in-cheek, satirical look at organized religion, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, and how even if one lives the perfect Christian life according to the gospels it’s not acceptable by the defiled church or the cynical people. The film assumes the mantle of a parable, trying to imagine how Christ would be treated if he returned to the modern world unrecognized as an unfortunate healer and a true believer. This is another fine example of Buñuel’s powerful films made during his exile in Mexico.

Set near the turn of the 20th-century Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal), an apostolic Roman Catholic (believing “everything belongs to the one who needs it most”), living in the Mexico of dictator Porfirio Diaz, literally tries to live the life of Christ but finds only humiliation and abuse from both the church and the people when he leaves the church residency to live in the village’s hostel run by the beleaguered Mrs. Chanfa. It’s a place frequented by beggars, thieves and prostitutes. His meager income comes from the alms he receives for saying mass. Often robbed, the priest’s only remaining possessions are his priestly garb he wears and his Bible. When a prostitute named Andara (Rita Macedo) kills the prostitute in a catfight who stole her blouse buttons, she’s profusely bleeding from knife wounds and seeks shelter from the police in Father Nazario’s apartment even though she has heaped scorn on him in the past. Wanting to hide the smells of the perfume in the apartment from the searching police, after another prostitute snitched on her when not bribed for her silence, Andara burns down the hostel. The priest reluctantly agrees to go on a pilgrimage with Andara and her troubled prettier sister Beatriz, who was rejected by the brutal construction worker boss Pinto and failed trying to hang herself in response. Beatriz sees this pilgrimage as a chance to run away from her problems. The two women view the barefooted priest as a saint and force themselves upon him as followers, as they go to different small rural towns asking for alms and trying to bring the word of God. In one town the priest miraculously cures Beatriz’s dying little relative by his prayers and laying a hand on her. In another town he helps bury victims of the plague, but feels useless when told by a woman dying she only wants a worldly love with her Juan and not the spiritual one he has to offer.

The ridiculous pilgrimage by the defrocked priest (dressed as a peasant so as not to implicate the church in his actions) is never ridiculed for not offering any help to the overwhelmed poor or that his efforts as a loner only point out how ineffective his teachings are to the many sinners he confronts. Instead it leads to the saintly priest’s downfall when he questions his uncompromising belief in God in such a cold world. The police arrest him for abetting the prostitute murderer and he’s severely beaten by a savage fellow prisoner while in custody, but saved by another prisoner (Ignacio Lopez Tarso) who feels sorry for the defenseless man. His church out of embarrassment for his acts condemns him for not following its rules, but gets him removed from being jailed with the common prison population. It ends in an open-ended manner, with the priest supposedly coming to his senses that he can’t save the world until he embraces humanity with all his love instead of looking only for Divine Justice. The priest also learns the hard way that he must be willing to accept charity, if needed (an old woman vendor gives the scarred priest a pineapple as he’s being led away by a guard, as the priest has become in her eyes someone to be pitied and not someone about to save the world). By losing his firm belief in God the priest has discovered his deeper humanity, and according to Buñuel is the better off for it. The priest is truly the kind of downtrodden idealistic humanistic hero Buñuel can relate to. According to the filmmaker, what the world needs today is a revolutionary with love in his heart and not another pious useless goody-goody priest thinking he’s Christ.