Luis Buñuel is one of a small group of directors whose work started in the silent era and ran way into the 1970s. As a big fan of another member of that exclusive club - Alfred Hitchcock - it’s tempting to get drawn into comparisons between the two, not least because spiritual issues in general and their Jesuit Catholic educations in particular, were major influences on their work.
I suspect that the attitudes to both men to questions of faith varied throughout their long careers. Certainly the harsh critique of religion in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée (The Milky Way), where religion is a monstrous edifice built of false foundations, is in stark contrast to Nazarin where Buñuel finds sympathy for his religiously motivated lead, even if he implies that such a lost cause is an indication of the absence of God.
It’s an unusual premise. Priests in movies tend towards one of two positions depending on the filmmakers’ prior beliefs: good priests whose example and ministry hint at the possibility of a good and gracious God; or bad priests whose sins typify the absence of God and, for the filmmaker at least, the murky motivations of many of those who have gained from abusing their position.
Here however Buñuel presents us with a priest who distils the very best of all those movie priests but uses his ineffectiveness and naiveté to question the existence of God. In part it’s an inversion of the Job story, whereby despite God’s servant living exactly as he ought to, he ends up downtrodden and cursed, repeatedly causing harm not only to himself, but also those around him. There’s no upbeat ending however and ultimately it’s God, rather than his servant, that ends up in the dock.
Yet it’s also a subversion of the example of Christ. Father Nazario is the very epitome of someone following in the footsteps of Jesus. He protects and attempts to reform the prostitute Andara; he frequently gives all his money away; he takes upa job only to leave it when he realises his appointment means others might go without; and he continues to preach the gospel to anyone that will listen. He even resists being called upon to miraculously heal a feverish girl, prays anyway, and then denies responsibility when she is healed.
Yet, that incident aisde, instead of a successful ministry Nazario finds only failure and rejection. Indeed Buñuel even strips him of his chance to be a martyr. He’s imprisoned by the authorities, bound and due to March to court, but then at the last minute separated from the other prisonners and allowed to travel unfettered and accompanied by a guard out of uniform. Whilst Nazario is not exactly free, he is no longer fearing for his life. Indeed this is one of the few Christ-figure films that neither ends with the death of the protagonist, nor even photographs them in a cruciform pose.
He does however manage to incur the wrath of the political and religious authorities. The church is scandalised by his relationship with the two women who accompany him, Beatriz and Andara. Andara is a former prostitute, Beatriz has psychotic episodes - including one where she imagines a picture of Jesus coming to life and mocking her - but both become devoted to Father Nazario and follow him everywhere..
However, much to his annoyance, the source of their devotion is not his teaching, despite his frequent chastisement, indeed ultimately Beatriz returns to her abusive lover Pinto. In the final scene she is shown falling asleep on his shoulder as they ride past a bedraggled Father Nazario en route as he walks the long road to face the authorities.
I say “authorities”, but by this stage the religious authorities have long made up their minds. Even at the start of the film he is considered something of a loose cannon, operating without a parish, By the end they consider him “reckless”, a “rebel spirit” affected by “madness”. Many parts of the film are damning of the church, but none more so that the penultimate scene where one of the bishop’s representatives tells him that “your habits contradict those of priests. Your ways confront the church which you claim to love and obey.”
What’s interesting about the film is where it finishes, further along the road to judgement Nazrio is given a pineapple by a fruit seller. DIfferent writers have interpreted this in different ways. Some see it as symbolic of the crown of thorns, others as suggestive of a handgrenade and still others as a nod to the fruit of the tree of good and evil from the Garden of Eden. At first Nazrio rejects it, but then he changed his mind and acepts the women’s charity, walking on with a troubled, although rather ambiguous look on his face. Has he realised for the first time that he is a human who needs others as much as they need him? Or is this his realisation of the absence of God.
Either way, ending at this point reminds me of how the ministry of Jesus must have looked like at this point. Despised and rejected, imprisoned by corrupt political authorities after the religious authorities have washed their hands of him. Rumours of him healing people in the past pale into insignificance the numbers of those who cheered him have dwindled away to just a prostitute and a mad woman. And even then they can’t stay awake at the crucial moment.
Christianity, of course, centres on the notion that this was not the end of the story. But for a while, at least, things must have seemed as bleak as they do at the end of Nazarin.