Director: Luis Bunuel
Script: Julio Alejandro and Luis Bunuel
With Francisco Rabal, Rita Macedo, Marga Lopez, and others
While the credits are rolling, a series of drawings shows historical views of Mexico City. One hears the voices of street vendors, barking dogs, neighing horses, the sound of hooves on cobble stones, songs accompanied by a barrel organ, and the general noises of a busy downtown district. The period is the beginning of the 20th century. A portrait of President Porfirio Diaz, shown toward the end of the film, puts the story into the time before the Revolution of 1910.
The action starts in front of a low-class inn. A decaying sign displays the name of the establishment: “Meson de los Heroes” (Inn of the Heroes). Busy women, street vendors, a trio of prostitutes, and a few beggars are moving about. A couple of city engineers are looking at the place while discussing the planned electrification of the neighborhood. A male voice is calling for the Chanfaina (Ofelia Guilmain), the energetic manager of the inn. Somebody tells her that Father Nazario wishes to talk to her. “What’s wrong with the blessed creature?” she sighs, annoyed by this interruption of her work. But she walks upstairs to see what the problem may be.
Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal) reports that someone has entered his rooms and stolen all his clothes, food, and the few coins that he had saved from the last church collection—his meager income as an auxiliary priest. The only clothing he has left is the cassock he is wearing. “Cursed be the day that you were born,” the Chanfaina tells him. “I’m really fed up! What will you eat for breakfast now? ” Father Nazario is a hard case when it comes to worldly affairs. He does not know how to take care of himself, and he is not the least bit interested in learning how to do so. People steal his things all the time, and he is content with getting by on a minimum of money and hand-outs. Nazario does not wish to press charges with the police, but he mentions that it was probably Camilla, a loose woman from the neighborhood, who has pilfered his place.
When La Chanfaina is back downstairs at work, she does not only arrange for some tortillas to be sent up to the priest, but also mentions Camilla’s alleged misdeed to the three prostitutes who are plying their trade in the area. Andara (Rita Macedo), the most vociferous of the three hookers, is a cousin of Camilla, and she is furious about the priest’s accusation. All three women walk up to Nazario’s rooms and start lambasting him for falsely accusing Andara’s cousin. “Look who’s letting out all this poison!” they heckle, blowing cigarette smoke into his face. “What did they steal from you, rat-face?” The verbal assaults continue until one of the city engineers rudely orders the women to leave the priest alone.
Both engineers want to know how Nazario can stand such a life of poverty and humiliation. “For me nothing belongs to anyone,” the priest explains, and he assures them that slanders and insults do not embitter him: “They do not bear me down. I bear them.” The engineers wonder whether Nazario is some kind of saintly rebel or heretic, but the priest assures them that he strictly adheres to the dogma of the Catholic Church, and that he faithfully obeys the orders of his superiors. While the men are talking, a neighbor appears to borrow a pot from Nazario’s utensils. When she finds some fire wood in the priest’s kitchen, she helps herself to that, too. “You are not going to need it, anyway,” she remarks on her way out. When the engineers finally go, they leave some money for the priest—not a small sum. Nazario thanks them for their kindness. A few minutes later a blind beggar appears at the door with a little girl. Nazario, without hesitation, gives them the money that the engineers have left for him.
Meanwhile a beautiful young woman, Beatriz (Marga Lopez), tries to hang herself from a beam in the stable of the inn. She has been seduced and abandoned by her dashing and cruel lover Pinto. The rotten beam breaks, however, and Beatriz finds herself sobbing on the floor. La Chanfaina, who chances upon the scene, unsentimentally tells Beatriz to look for a better beam if she really wants to do away with herself. Then she chides her for not paying the rent, and orders her to do some work in the kitchen. She loudly expresses her opinion that Pinto hardly is worth shedding any tears over. Beatriz is madly in love, however. A little later, while she has flashback memories of a sexual encounter with Pinto (Noe Murayama), we see her going into a hysterical fit: Her body convulses into a “bridge,” a violent display of erotic desire.
The prostitute Andara discovers that her cousin Camilla was indeed involved in the burglary of Nazario’s quarters. She gets into a vicious fight with her. She wounds her, possibly mortally, and is badly wounded herself. Fearing arrest she seeks refuge in Nazario’s rooms. His is the only place where the police would not be looking for her. Nazario is inclined to throw her out, but relents when he notices how badly wounded she is. When she faints as a result of her blood loss, he carries her to his bed and dresses her wounds.
Andara begins to recuperate during the following days, but the neighbors start talking about the priest keeping a woman in his rooms. The insinuations are absurd. Not only is Nazario appalled by the superstitions and the vulgarity of the woman, but Andara is also no beauty, and her make-up is a grotesquely crude mask. “The smell of shit is better than the old bag’s perfume,” one of her former customers remarks. Yet, the maliciousness breeding in the neighborhood seems inexhaustible. Nazario’s reputation is progressively ruined, and eventually one of the prostitutes (Rosenda Monteros), now a blackmailing enemy of Andara, goes to the police to report the prostitute's hideout.
To save the priest from legal difficulties, La Chanfaina persuades Andara to wash the smell of her obnoxious perfume from the premises, and then to leave altogether. Andara has become sincerely enamored with the priest. She has removed her hideous make-up, and she is trying to live a clean life. She honestly tries to keep Nazario out of trouble. But instead of scrubbing the place with soap and water, she simply sets fire to the priest’s rooms: “Now they can come sniffing around if they like,” she tells Beatriz. While the whole inn goes up in flames, the two women run away and leave town.
For a few days Nazario finds refuge with his friend Don Angelo, a priest who has helped him before. Nazario contributes to his upkeep by rolling cigarettes in a small machine. When rumors about Nazario's involvement with Andara and the arson begin to circulate in the city, however, Don Angelo reluctantly asks the priest to leave, even though he is certain that Nazario is innocent. He and his mother are concerned about their reputation. There is also talk of the Archbishop planning to divest Nazario of his priesthood, a demotion that in the eyes of Don Angelo's mother would render Nazario unworthy of further living under their roof. Nazario decides to give up his cassock voluntarily and to roam the countryside while surviving on handouts and work he can find.
His small travel bag soon gets stolen, and his boots he gives to a needy peasant who puts him up for a night. When he chances upon a railroad crew, he asks the foreman whether he could spare a little food. The foreman tells him rudely that he does not support idlers. Nazario offers to do work for a meal, and he is furnished with a wheelbarrow and a shovel. Clumsily he starts to shovel sand. The other workers of the crew are not happy. Someone who works just for food is undermining their efforts to get better wages for themselves and their families. One of the workers explains the situation to Nazario, and the priest understands and walks away. The incensed foreman throws a rock at him, hurting the priest, and then starts quarreling with the workers. He injures one of them, while another beats him down with a shovel in response. The foreman reaches for his revolver. Nazario is already a distance away when he hears shots. He hesitates and wonders for a second, but then resumes his walk. Blithely he plucks a small olive branch from a tree and continues his hike through the beautiful landscape.
While begging for alms in a village Nazario is spotted by Beatriz, who now lives in that community with her widowed sister. She is most happy to see the priest, and she wants to put him up and furnish him with shoes and food. When Nazario hears that Andara is staying with Beatriz as well, he quickly declines the invitation and tries to get away. Only when Beatriz tells him that her little niece is seriously ill, and that her sister is in bad need of some spiritual consolation, does Nazario agree to accompany her home.
At the sister’s house a whole group of women is frantically concerned about the fate of the little girl. They are convinced that the priest can save her. Andara takes the lead in declaring Nazario a saint who has the power to perform miracles. Nazario chides the women for being so blasphemous and superstitious. He angrily insists that he is not a saint, and that only medicine and God can save the little girl. But the women insist: Nazario came to them barefoot "like our Lord Jesus Christ," and if he refuses to perform a miracle it is only because he does not want to perform one. "Work a miracle!" they start shouting. "A miracle! A miracle!"
Nazario tells them sternly that he is neither a quack nor a faith healer, but he agrees to pray with them. While he proceeds with the Lord’s Prayer, the women increasingly work themselves into frenzy--cursing Satan, praising the saintliness of Nazario, screaming and wailing, and turning the occasion into an emotional cult event. Andara, beating her chest, shouts "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" Another woman has a seizure and falls to the ground. Nazario is aghast. Helplessly he watches how the women begin to shout in a chorus "Saint! Saint! Saint!" They touch him with their hands and sprigs of herbs as if he were a sacred object, and then caress the sick child in order to transfer his supposed healing power to the patient. Nazarin is unable to prevent the black magic event from running its course.
Next day, after a solitary morning prayer at the church, Nazario is informed by Beatriz that the little girl has recovered from her illness. The awed woman kisses his hand; his reputation as a saint is now solidly established in the village. Nazario is anxious to leave this madness (as he calls it), and to get away from the women as fast as he can. He soon discovers, however, that he is being followed by Beatriz and Andara, who carry sticks and traveling bundles like the priest. He stops and tells them that he wishes to travel by himself. “I am not crazy,” he tells them, judging their disposition quite correctly. “Just think what would befall me if you went with me!” He also explains that every person must have his “own conscience and solitude.” The women pretend to give up their intention, but they cautiously keep following their idol at a distance.
On the road Nazarin passes a party whose carriage is stuck because their horse broke a leg. The party is upper-class: An Army Colonel, an attired priest, and a well-clad lady. Nazario helps the driver to drag the suffering horse off the road. While they are working, a peasant leading a donkey passes by. The Colonel harshly calls back the peasant because the rustic has failed to salute the man in uniform. The peasant is made to pass by again and show proper respect. Seeing this Nazario expresses his disgust at such conduct. He tells the Colonel that such behavior is “unchristian, barbarous, and brutish.” The peasant, he points out, is not an animal, and has as much human dignity as the soldier--and is as much a child of God as everyone else. Infuriated, the Colonel reaches for his revolver. The priest in the party, a high-ranking member of the clergy, succeeds in calming him down by explaining that Nazario is just a misguided “heretic,” and probably one of those "crazy preachers sent down from the North.”
While washing up under some giant trees beside a river, Nazario is approached by Andara and Beatriz. This time the women insist that they be allowed to travel with him. They need his spiritual instruction, they say, and they maintain that he has no right to abandon them to their ignorance. Nazario reluctantly agrees to let the women travel with him, provided they behave properly and do not bother him. That night he instructs them in the basic dogmas of the Catholic faith. Repeatedly he is annoyed, however, by the numerous superstitious beliefs that seem to dominate the thinking of the women. “Will the demons leave my body?” the love sick Beatriz asks, and Andara keeps talking about “the evil eye” and its detrimental effects. Nazario has little success in teaching Catholic doctrine or spiritual matters, and he ends up counseling the women to "lead a healthy life and take plenty of exercise" to get rid of whatever ails them.
The three reach a village in which the plague has broken out. A monotone church bell is tolling; bodies are lying in the streets. Many villagers are fleeing, and most of the remaining sick are left without care. The sanitation crew with their supplies and equipment, expected to come from Mexico City, has not arrived. Nazario goes to work, sparing neither himself nor the sensitivities of his companions. They clean beds, air rooms, try to find milk for a baby, and generally do their best to comfort the victims of the plague. Nazario tries to administer the last rites to a young woman who seems to be dying. The woman, however, keeps calling for her lover. "Not heaven... Juan," she keeps pleading. Nazario exhorts her to think of her eternal soul and to forget the affairs of this world. But the woman continues to ask for Juan. When Juan finally arrives, jumping off his horse and rushing to his beloved’s bed, the woman begs him to send the priest away. Whether she is dying or not, she wants to be alone with her earthly lover.
Nazario is deeply disappointed. Dejected he walks to the end of the village, Andara and Beatriz in tow, not quite knowing what to do next. They see the sanitation crew arrive in a diligence from the city. The full ensemble of the church bells is now ringing in joyful anticipation of the crew's work; the mood of the entire community is changing. “There is nothing for us to do here,” Nazario tells his companions. Somber the three pilgrims resume their uncertain journey.
In the next village they run into Pinto, who is buying horses there. When he spots Beatriz he approaches her, telling her to come with him. Even though he calls her a "slut" and publicly humiliates her by making her fetch water for him, Beatriz is helplessly attracted to him. She tries to "fight the devil,” however. She tells her former lover that she will stay with the saintly priest. Pinto, totally contemptuous of Nazario, tells Beatriz to wait for him the next day at the outskirts of the village. He plans to take her to the village where her mother lives, and from there back to the capital.
The three pilgrims receive a warning that the authorities are about to nab Andara and the priest. The two are to be put on trial for the arson in Mexico City. Andara wants them to flee; but the priest replies that only criminals run, and that he will stay and put his fate in God’s hands. The three spend the night in a nearby ruin. Nazario tries to help Beatriz to get over her obsession with Pinto by telling her to love--but to love not just one person, “but everything God has created.” That is how Nazario himself relates to the world. Beatriz, temporarily comforted and at peace, leans her head on his shoulder.
Seeing this, Andara begins to sob. She accuses Nazario of being partial in his attention to the women: It is only Beatriz who gets to hear nice things from him, while Andara is always reproached for misbehaving and being stupid. Nazario invites her to sit down beside him, and he explains once more that his love is impartial, that it extends to everybody and everything in the world. He fatherly pats Andara on the head, and then gets up to be by himself.
Next morning two Federales come and arrest Andara and Nazario. They are accompanied by upset villagers who insult and physically assault the priest: “Two females… We are Christians here, you pig!” Andara furiously assaults the villagers, defending the priest. With some difficulty the Federales manage to separate the combatants, and they lead the prisoners back to the village. Beatriz insists on staying with her companions, although the authorities have no interest in her. In the village the three are attached to a convoy of prisoners, and together they begin their march back to the capital.
When the convoy spends the night at the jail of Beatriz' home village, Beatriz’ mother tries to convince her daughter to forget about Nazario and to reunite with Pinto. Beatriz, in turn, tries to explain that her devotion to Nazario is much purer, and thus much more desirable. Reminding her mother of Nazario's supposed restitution of her niece's health, Beatriz marvels: “He’s got an angel’s voice which penetrates to the bone. When he touches your clothes, you tremble so much you want to die… and be in heaven, never to leave him.” The mother, listening to her words, points out the obvious: “Child, you love this man as a man.” Upon hearing this Beatriz throws a fit. She keeps yelling that her mother’s contention is a lie, and she is finally carried away, kicking and screaming, by Pinto whom her mother calls in.
The scene changes to the men's cell at the prison. A murderer (Luis Aceves Castañeda), who has been assaulting and insulting Nazario all day, now attacks the priest physically in the most vicious way. While several prisoners make fun of the rites of the church, Nazario is beaten down and kicked by the murderer until another prisoner (Ignacio Lopez Tarso) puts a stop to the ordeal. Nazario tells his attacker that he forgives him, because it is his "duty as a Christian." But he adds that for the first time in his life he finds it hard to forgive, and that he hates himself for being unable to distinguish between forgiveness and contempt.
Nazario then thanks the man who saved him, and who is now helping him to dress his bleeding head wound. Although the man makes no bones about being a habitual criminal, Nazario tries hard to find redeeming features in his character and life. He wants to save him by kindling feelings of remorse and hope in the man’s soul. But the man tells him that it is no use: “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 stunned by these words. Deep self-doubt appears on his face. While the kind but unrepentant criminal eventually lies down to catch some sleep, Nazario sits motionless and sleepless—utterly defeated.
Next day Nazario is separated from the rest of the prisoners to save the church any public embarrassment. An envoy of the Bishop explains the arrangement to Nazario, and he berates the priest for his “follies and insolence.” The church considers Nazario a disobedient nonconformist and “spiritual rebel” who fails to “adapt to reality.” He is obliged to walk with a guard who is armed, but not in uniform. While the two men are walking along the dusty highway, they are overtaken by a two-seat carriage. Pinto is in the driver’s seat, displaying his usual smug demeanor, while Beatriz looks at him adoringly. They do not notice the priest, nor does Nazario see the couple.
At a fruit vendor’s cart the guard stops to buy a couple of apples for himself. The vendor asks him whether it would be alright to give the prisoner a pineapple, and the guard shrugs his consent. The vendor offers Nazario the fruit, but Nazario rejects her kind offer. When the woman insists by saying "Take it," Nazario says: "No, no!" and moves away. But after a few seconds he thinks better of it: he turns around and accepts the gift. "May God reward you, Señora," he tells the puzzled vendor. As the two men resume their march, Nazario--looking defeated and pathetic with his bandaged head—holds the fruit in his arm like something very precious. The last shot shows a wide-open sky, and some branches of a tree silhouetted against its vast emptiness.
The Imitation of Christ
"Nazarin" was a successful movie. It was praised by most critics, and it did reasonably well at the box office. What was surprising was the direction from which much of the praise came. Buñuel has always been known for his anti-clerical stands, and he has gone on record with snappy statements like "I' m still an atheist, thank God." Yet, "Nazarin" was nominated for an important prize given out by Catholic film critics, and serious Christians everywhere consider Buñuel 's film an important and inspiring contribution to the religious discourse of our time.
To the extent that "Nazarin" is a criticism of the Christian religion, it is an unusual one. For the film is not based on the sort of material on which anti-religious polemics are usually based--the misconduct of individual priests, the political alignment of the church with repressive governments, the interference of the clerical hierarchy in the free pursuit of scientific research, or other abuses of power that have tended to undermine respect for organized religion. On the contrary, the central figure of Buñuel’s film is an admirable and even endearing person. The protagonist is, one might say, a Christian at his best. Nazario is, in fact, a genuine Christ figure--a man who embodies Christian virtues so completely and with such sincerity that it is entirely plausible to refer to him as "Nazarin," as the Man of Nazareth.
The Christian virtues that Nazario embodies are love, compassion, forgiveness, humility, non-violence, purity of heart, poverty of spirit, faith, and hope. The priest rarely deviates from the life characterized by these virtues. One of the most common character deformations found among ordinary Christians, hypocrisy, is entirely foreign to Nazario's nature; there is no gap whatsoever between theory and practice in the conduct of the priest. By maintaining this kind of integrity Nazario represents an important ideal that was prominently advocated by the medieval monk Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471). In his influential book The Imitation of Christ Thomas à Kempis 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 heart. Let it be our most earnest study, therefore, to dwell upon the life of Jesus Christ. (1)
What sets the teachings of Thomas à Kempis apart from most other doctrinal writings is their almost exclusive emphasis on practice. Following the Lord, according to Thomas, does not mean to just believe what Jesus says, but to practice Christian virtues--to live a life that is like that of Christ:
What doth it profit thee to enter into deep discussion concerning the Holy Trinity, if thou lack humility, and be thus displeasing to the Trinity? For verily it is not deep words that make a man holy and upright; it is a good life which maketh a man dear to God. I had rather feel contrition than be skilful in the definition thereof. … That is the highest wisdom, to cast the world behind us, and to reach forward to the heavenly kingdom. (2)
Nazario represents convincingly what Thomas à Kempis meant by the Imitation of Christ. Throughout the film the priest comes as close to embodying Jesus as one can imagine. In doing so Nazario is a much truer Christian than any other cleric that we encounter in the story. He is, indeed, so truthfully Christian in his conduct that he becomes a nuisance and embarrassment for the official church. The church, after all, is a worldly institution. Ordinary priests, like Nazario's friend Don Angelo, are naturally concerned with appearances and reputation—often at the expense of truth and genuine integrity. Their material comfort, too, is by no means unimportant to them. And as the episode with the Colonel indicates, the church wants to remain on good terms with the powers that be, even if it means supporting the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and his oppressive army. Because of its existence as a worldly organization, the church has relatively little use for pure souls like Nazario, as the Archbishop's envoy makes abundantly clear by dressing down the priest for not "adapting to reality." Yet, in spite of the claims of the official church, it is evident that Nazario is a truer representative of what Jesus stands for than any of the officially appointed clerics. Nazario is the one who truly casts the world behind him, and who most sincerely "reaches forward to the heavenly kingdom." This, then, is the Christian whom Buñuel chooses to make his case against religion. What is Buñuel’s case? What, in his eyes, is wrong with Nazario?
A key passage of the whole film is the statement of the prisoner who protects Nazario against the vicious attacks of the murderer: "You're on the side of good and I'm on the side of evil... And neither of us is any use for anything." Jesus, when crucified, was placed between two common criminals, one of whom became repentant and receptive to the promise of an eternal life, while the other remained defiant. There is an obvious parallel to the two prisoners who walk and sleep next to Nazario on their way to Mexico City, one of them showing some human kindness to the priest, and the other being a stupidly violent brute. Like Jesus, Nazario wants to help and console the man who seems to be open to redemption. "Wouldn't you like to be good?" he asks his protector. But instead of responding in the way the man on the cross had responded to Jesus, Nazario's fellow prisoner expresses his pessimistic conviction that there is nothing much anyone can do about anything. The world is the way it is, and it does not make much of a difference whether people propagate one thing or another. "What use is your life really?" he challenges the priest, and Nazario realizes at that point that he has no plausible answer. His Christ-like existence has made no significant difference to anyone, and it is, indeed, more than doubtful that the world has ever been a better place because of the erstwhile existence of Jesus.
The prisoner's words are so devastating to Nazario because they state an obvious truth, a truth that has slowly been dawning on the defrocked and defeated priest. Looking at the sequence of events that have occurred since his days in the capital, Nazario cannot help but notice that they are void of accomplishments as far as teaching and spreading the holy faith are concerned. His words and deeds have been ineffective, and the entire journey has been mainly a series of debacles. In spite of Nazario’s saintly conduct, it has been a journey of "no use for anything.”
Some viewers may think that Nazario did not have much success in the world, to be sure, but that numbers do not count, and that he did find at least two faithful followers, Andara and Beatriz. A closer look at the discipleship of the two women quickly reveals, however, that Nazario's attempt to instruct and guide the women resulted in nothing but yet another failure. It was, in fact, the nature of the relationship that the two women developed to the priest that shows the deep failing of Nazario's teaching. Ardent and sincere as their devotion to Nazario was, neither Andara nor Beatriz ever became a disciple of Jesus.
Beatriz started out as an explicitly physical creature. (Obviously, there is a contrasting parallel to Maria Magdalena, the follower of Jesus who, according to popular tradition, used to live a life of sexual pleasures.) In her flashbacks of the erotic scene with Pinto, Beatriz revels in the play of sexual power and attraction, passionately biting her lover's lips and calling him affectionately "pig." Her sexual seizure at the inn, furthermore, shows how thoroughly her whole being had always been pervaded by her sexual energy. In the scene at the village fountain she shudders under the caressing touch of Pinto, and she tells him: "You know very well that if you order me to I shall go with you."
Beatriz puts up a valiant struggle against her physical nature and sexual desires, and she manages for a while to replace her primal desires with an inner devotion to the priest. At one point her story actually seems to be a victory of the spirit over the flesh--until her mother points out that Beatriz' enthusiasm for the priest is really an earthly desire in disguise. Beatriz tries desperately to deny the truth of her mother's observation, but in the end she cannot help but recognize who she is: not a saint, living beyond the entanglements of the flesh, but a physical being with desires that seek their fulfillment in this life and on this earth. When at the conclusion of the film she is united with Pinto, she has accepted her physical nature, and her dream of disembodied love is left behind as so much illusion and self-deception.
Andara (as an ex-prostitute also a contrasting Magdalena figure) never came even close to overcoming her passionate and down-to-earth nature. She loved Nazario as a kind and brave man, and she eagerly sought to be loved by him as an individual person. She had no qualms about showing her worldly jealousy when Nazario seemed to pay too much attention to Beatriz, and she protested loudly whenever the priest tried to get away from her, or when other people threatened to separate her from him. When one of the hostile villagers attacked Nazario at the time of the arrest, Andara showed her passionate love by furiously attacking the attacker. When the priest scolded her for being so violent, he demanded that she apologize to the person she had hurt, and that she ask for the man's forgiveness. "I'd rather die than ask forgiveness from that swine," she replied, true to her unreformed nature. In the end, neither of the women ever developed into a Christian Magdalena. Nazario never was a Christ figure for either of them: he always remained a man.
Buñuel inserts a humorous comment on the discipleship of the two women into the movie. When Andara and Beatriz tell Nazario that they intend to follow him on his journey through the country, one can hear a distinct "moo" coming from a nearby pasture. There is no music in the main body of the film, thus the sounds Buñuel uses at particular points stand out and carry considerable weight. The bovine "moo" following the words of the women characterizes their decision as a manifestation of the herd instinct--of a force that has little to do with the spiritual aspirations of Christian discipleship, but everything with the primal constitution of humans as natural beings. By depicting the attachment of Andara and Beatriz to Nazario as something instinctual and natural, Buñuel characterizes the priest's spiritual mission once more as a comical failure. Nazario's Christian vision, after all, is one of overcoming primal nature and physical reality; its wisdom consists in a reaching forward to the heavenly kingdom by casting behind the natural and physical world. Such transcendence, however, was never achieved by the women, and Nazario knew it. It was the recognition that his failure was total--that it included even his most faithful followers--that broke his spirit during the night of his final ordeal.
A further detail rounds out the picture of Nazario's undoing: the discovery that he cannot distinguish between forgiveness and contempt. Nazario realizes the unredeemable depravity with which the murderer inflicted entirely gratuitous pain and humiliation on him; he knows that his tormentor is scum. His Christian duty is still to “forgive” the man, but this “forgiving” has become an empty gesture. His primary reaction is contempt, and that reaction is human. Nazario thus learns that he is human in the same way in which Beatriz learned that she is a physical, sexual being. Like Beatriz Nazario is forced to learn who he is.
With this insight the priest’s former identity ceases—like an assumed role that has no real meaning anymore. His Imitation of Christ has found its limit. Even his body language changes. Although Nazario’s conduct had always been polite and unassuming, his demeanor had been confident and vigorous at the beginning of the film. One could say that he had performed Christian humility with some relish. This confidence and vigor are gone at the end; the former Christ-figure does not know who he is anymore. The once confident Christian has died to his old self.
Buñuel dramatizes this end by inserting the long drum roll that begins with Nazario's march back to the capital, and that steadily increases in volume until the film ends. In Buñuel’s Spanish hometown Calanda it was a traditional ritual to beat an enormous number of drums from noon on Good Friday until noon on Saturday. The "mysterious power" of these drum rolls was activated "in recognition of the shadows that covered the earth at the moment Christ died," as Buñuel notes in his memoir My Last Breath. (3) In the film the drum roll’s dark power is activated once more—this time in solemn recognition of the end of Nazario as a Man of God.
Nazario and Don Quichote
While working on the film Buñuel once characterized Nazario and the two women by remarking: "There goes Don Quichote and his two Sanchos." Critics have taken note of the similarity between the pilgrimage of Nazario and the adventures of Cervantes’ crazy Knight of La Mancha. If one takes this similarity as one that pertains not only to the external form of the Spanish picaro novel, the structure of which is a series of episodes in which the protagonist has to survive various encounters with dangerous antagonists, but also to the delusional mind of Don Quichote, then serious consequences follow for the understanding of "Nazarin."
Cervantes’ Don Quichote is a tragic-comical figure because of the discrepancy between the world in his mind and the world in which he actually lives and acts. The world in his mind is the world of medieval knights as described in the popular novels of his day. At the time when the Knight of La Mancha reads these novels, the real world of medieval knights has long ceased to exist, but in poor Don Quichote’s mind it is still a vibrant reality. He thus ventures out into the world in full armor to charge such things as windmills, thinking that the mills are giants that need to be defeated in battle. A shaving basin used by barbers serves as his helmet, and an ordinary peasant girl is revered by him as a high-born damsel who is in need of his knightly services. Thus he travels through the country with his squire Sancho Panza, trying to perform noble deeds, but invariably making a hilarious mess of things.
How do Nazario and Don Quichote compare? Like the knight, the priest comes off as both laughable and noble. Nazario’s character is forthright, brave, kind, and sincere, and his faithful adherence to Christian virtues impeccable. But in terms of effectiveness and accomplishments his pursuits look increasingly foolish—somewhat like those of Don Quichote. And if the analogy between the knight and Nazario holds, it is an illusory and out-dated worldview that renders the priest's doings so pathetic. The heart of Nazario's Christian worldview is his metaphysical transcendentalism--his belief that beyond the world here and now there is another world, the non-physical kingdom of heaven in which we are meant to live our ultimate life. In "Nazarin" this metaphysical transcendentalism is the ideological equivalent of the dreams of medieval chivalry that clouded the mind of Don Quichote.
Buñuel’s film is to a large extent based on the novel Nazarin, written by Benito Perez Galdos toward the end of the 19th century. In that novel Nazario has an argument with a village mayor who firmly opposes the transcendentalism of the errant priest. Preferring modern progress to the Catholic conservatism that in his mind has held back healthy developments in Spanish society for too long, the mayor tells the priest:
The nineteenth century has taken a stance, and it says: “I don't want convents or seminaries; but I do want business. I don't want religious hermits; I want economists. I don't want sermons; but I do want local railroads. I don't want saintly priests; I want fertilizers made from chemicals.” Ah, my dear sir, the day that we have a University in every enlightened town, a Farmer's Bank on every street, and an electric machine that will do the cooking in the kitchen of every house, ah! on that day mysticism won't stand a chance of existing! (4)
The mayor's praise of what has become known as Progress makes it clear that the faith of the errant priest is pitched against the culture of a whole age. The 19th century was the age of the Industrial Revolution with all the far-reaching consequences that this event has had in the lives of Western and non-Western peoples. There were the dramatic breakthroughs in science and technology, the enormous increases in industrial productivity, the global expansion of resource extraction and markets, the impressive improvements in transportation and communication, the rapid spread of medical services and hygienic practices, and an unprecedented population explosion and concomitant urbanization of human society. Corporations and governments built giant dams, canals, and irrigation systems; inventors developed new kinds of fuels and machines; modern mass bureaucracies and political organizations replaced traditional and more personal forms of government and administration. An appreciable increase of material affluence allowed whole populations to enjoy life in an entirely new way.
All these changes were a realization of the secular ideals of the Enlightenment. Modern technology seemed to provide human beings with the means to create a world that would serve their earthly purposes, and that would empower humanity as a whole to determine their own fate in a beneficial way. Prometheus had stolen the fire from the gods and enabled human beings to harness and domesticate the forces of nature; Prometheus' defiance of Zeus and the rest of the gods was a declaration of independence that moved the center of power from the heavens to earth. For increasing numbers of people the thought of another world and a life after death lost its traditional allure and significance; for many belief in another world had lost its plausibility altogether. Modern life, even for people who nominally remained Christians, had essentially become a secular life.
As the power of human ingenuity and industry manifested itself in the evident transformation of the planet, agnosticism or the outright denial of any Other World became normal not only among certain scientists, writers, and philosophers, but acceptable also in popular culture. The idea of the earth as a vale of tears slowly waned; the once daunting image of people as “sinners in the hand of an angry God” began to look quaint. The thought of such things as sexuality, the human body, or even life as inherently sinful and worthless became decidedly old-fashioned or obsolete. The once powerful reign of metaphysical transcendentalism was reduced to a vague and barely surviving notion that did not play much of a practical role in people’s lives anymore.
It is against this background of modern culture that Nazario’s traditional faith can be seen as the medieval fantasy world that makes the priest comparable to the Knight of La Mancha. To understand Nazario is to see that he stood in opposition to the overwhelming forces and reality of the modern age. Nazario is the medieval knight errant who fights the wind mills of modernity without realizing what he is facing, and without recognizing their devastating power. Turn-of-the-century Mexico was, of course, not in the forefront of modern societies; the country had yet to be transformed by the approaching revolution of 1910 and its long-term implications. Nevertheless, Buñuel makes sure that we see Nazario's story in the context of modernity and its material and philosophical manifestations. At the beginning of the film the city engineers prepare and explain the electrification of the metropolitan area to the people in the neighborhood, thus contrasting the effective transformation of people's physical and social environment with the quaint and inconsequential sermonizing of the priest. The same point is made by the episode of the plague-stricken village and the medical crew from the city. It is clear that the coming world of material expansion and intensified worldly living will be much less of a place for otherworldly preachers than ever.
The fact that Nazario’s transcendentalism looks antiquated in modern times, and that people do not have much use for what he says, does not by itself mean that the priest’s teachings are pointless or wrong. The state of the modern world is not such that a radical criticism of its dizzying frenzy and thoughtless materialism could be rejected out of hand. Buñuel, however, does not use the priest as a means to criticize the modern world. It is Nazario whom he considers to be at odds with the truth of things. To show that people do not reject the priest’s metaphysical transcendentalism without reason, the director goes to some length in exposing the intellectual weaknesses of Nazario’s medieval convictions.
The internal incongruity of the priest’s teachings is demonstrated in Nazario's attempt to instruct Beatriz and Andara in the doctrines of the Catholic faith. After the priest has stated his belief in God, who is said to be omnipotent, and who has "created from nothing the earth and all that is on it," Andara asks: "And God is everywhere, isn't he?" "Yes, everywhere," Nazario confirms. As Andara is cooking tortillas, she holds up one of them and asks: "Is he in this, too?" "Yes," the priest replies. "So, eating tortillas is like taking communion?" Andara continues. She is not trying to be funny, and her conclusion is logical. But what she concludes is not Catholic doctrine. Nazario has to set her straight by explaining that a host has to be specially consecrated to contain God. In doing so, however, he contradicts what he has asserted before.
The point of this exchange is to demonstrate that the priest’s faith does not accord with either logic or common sense. His teaching, in other words, is as odd as his general conduct. The viewer is reminded that the priest’s faith has to be accepted on the problematic basis of authority and tradition alone, and that the idea of consistency, evidence, and scientific proof might be a potent rival and powerful threat to Nazario’s religion.
Nazario's theoretical weakness also shows up in his handling of the women's superstitions. Andara's and Beatriz' folk beliefs are a constant source of the priest's annoyance--for the very reason that he has no solid grounds for refuting them. The women like to think of various ailments in terms of "demons," for example, and Nazario does his best to discourage that sort of talk. Yet, the clergymen themselves (such as Don Angelo) have no qualms talking about the "devil" or "devils," and such language inevitably raises the question why the Christian "devil" should be any less superstitious than the pagan "demons." There is, in other words, a serious problem of consistency in Nazario's convictions, a problem that is part of the portrait that Buñuel paints of the priest.
Nazario's repeated remarks concerning superstition, and his aversion to magical practices, brings to light a rather general problem of consistency in the faith of his church. Catholicism is generally, and for obvious reasons, rather skeptical about claims concerning miraculous happenings. Nazario represents standard Catholic practice when he rejects the women's contention that he has performed a miracle by healing the little girl. The church has, however, certified a good number of events as genuine miracles, and places where such apparently supernatural events occurred play an important role in the life of the Catholic world. Catholic life would, indeed, be massively reduced (perhaps impoverished) if sites like Lourdes or Guadelupe did not attract the millions of faithful who seek to profit from the supernatural powers that are believed to be present at such shrines. The church, in other words, fully condones what in similar cases it denounces as superstitious, and it does so in order not to lose the fervent devotion of people for whom there would be no vibrant religion if it were not for the belief in miracles and magical powers. Catholicism has no convincing life without the sort of devotion and "crazy" beliefs that the women displayed in connection with the sick girl; "superstition" may be an ineradicable part of the faith that Nazario defends. His attempts at purging the women's minds of pagan aberrations may well be an unintended step toward the elimination of religion altogether.
Besides such questions of logic and consistency there is the even more troubling problem of metaphysical transcendence as such. Nazario takes for granted the existence of another world--the kingdom of heaven into which souls enter once they have cast behind them the physical world. Belief in such a transcendent world, however, leads to all the intractable problems that philosophers run into whenever they try to make sense of metaphysical propositions. At issue is the basic question whether talk of a metaphysical transcendence makes any sense at all. The difficulties that Nazario creates in talking about metaphysical matters suggest that it does not.
When Nazario tries to explain the concept of consecrating a host, for example, he describes the act in the following way: "When the priest consecrates the host, the Lord descends into it with all His Being. He is in it, just like you would be in a room." This is a puzzling description indeed. It is problematic enough to simply say that God is "in" a wafer; any thoughtful person will wonder what exactly such a statement could mean. But to say that God is in the host "just like you would be in a room" is bound to provoke conceptual turmoil. (It is presumably for this reason that Buñuel put these puzzling words into Nazario's mouth.) For how can a host be a three-dimensional space like a room, and God a three-dimensional being like a person who is in that space? How could God, if he were like a physical, three-dimensional being, be present in all the consecrated hosts that exist at any one time? And how could God be “in” something if he is not a physical being? Something is not right with the priest’s explanation; the picture he offers cannot possibly help in understanding God or God's presence in a host. The explanation and language that Nazario offers cannot but leave an attentive listener baffled.
To simply take back Nazario’s explanation as an isolated gaffe will not do. The problems that come up with the explanation of how God can be present in a host are bound to come up with other crucial details of a belief in metaphysical transcendence and non-physical beings. The insuperable difficulty is always the task of talking about or thinking a supposedly meta-physical realm in terms that acquire their meaning in a physical and human world. How can a realm beyond space and time be described as an order that includes “above,” “beside,” and “below,” or as a place where the deceased face and recognize each other without face, voice, or other physical details? How can one conceive of a life that is void of biological features? It seems that one either has to give up the claim that the kingdom of heaven is metaphysical, or stop saying anything at all. A world beyond space and time can neither be thought nor described, and a non-physical life is as plain an oxymoron as a married bachelor. Pronouncements that attempt to convey such non-thoughts always turn out to be sounds without sense.
Nazario is, of course, not aware of any of this. In his humility and voluntarily accepted poverty of spirit he feels no urge to ask probing and challenging questions. The attentive viewer of Buñuel’s film, however, does. While the priest only experiences the ineffectiveness and crushing failure of his teaching and mission, the viewer can see why Nazario fails. Not only does the priest fail to recognize the power and reality of 20th century technology and its social implications—secularism, materialism, and drastically changing patterns of behavior. He is also untouched by the sophistication and critical modes of inquiry that are part of this modern world. Skepticism, critical questioning, and doubting of authorities or tradition are not part of his make-up. He is locked into a body of beliefs that prevents him from seeing things in perspective—from fully recognizing how much the world has changed, and from appreciating the precariousness of his role in it. Thus he comes off like the Knight of La Mancha--compassionate, generous, brave, and endearing, but also as a victim of his lack of understanding and knowledge. Like Don Quichote Nazario is tragicomically disconnected from the world.
(From Jorn K. Bramann: Educating
Rita and Other Philosophical Movies )
Wittgenstein: Metaphor and Metaphysics
Philosophical Films: A Special Topics Course