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Luis Buñuel followed his Death in the Garden with the hugely successful Nazarín, a humanistic study of the failure of Catholicism that went on to win the Grand Prix International at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. This deceptively simple masterwork was one of Buñuel’s favorite films and one of his most curiously received, and with good reason. “Jacques Prévert, an adamant anticleric, regretted that I’d given a priest the leading role. ’It’s ridiculous to worry about their problems,’ he told me, believing as he did that all priests were thoroughly reprehensible,” notes Buñuel in his autobiography. Others referred to the film as the director’s “attempt at personal rehabilitation” and while Nazarín may find him uniquely sympathetic to the Catholic cause, Buñuel is still very much critical of the folly of a certain pure form of Christianity.

Nazarín (the great Francisco “Paco” Rabal) lives among whores, thieves and beggars in an impoverished Mexican town during the early 1900s. Though his neighbors perpetually steal from him, Nazarín refuses to lock his door; he is an Apostolic and Roman Catholic so he believes that “everything belongs to the one who needs it most.” Nazarín befriends the suicidal Beatriz (Marga López) and hides her sister Andara (Rita Macedo) from La Prieta (Rosenda Monteros). A crazed Andara’s “mea culpa” dream of a laughing Jesus closely follows Beatriz’s fantasy of her estranged lover Pinto (Noé Murayama) loving her masochistically; both sequences are suggestive of Nazarín’s belief that sex (if not any type of desire) is inextricably bound to sin. Though Buñuel does not deny the purity of Nazarín’s faith, he is certainly critical of the man’s passivity. “Nazarín is motivated by his beliefs, his ideology. What moves me is what happens when his ideology fails, because whenever Nazarín gets involved, even in the best of faith, he only begets conflicts and disasters,” says Buñuel of his protagonist.

Nazarín so freely gives of himself (his knowledge, his possessions) that the servant leader becomes not unlike a modern-day Jesus. He even welcomes stones (here, the ridicule of townsfolk and the fists of a prisoner) without retaliation. When Nazarín takes to the road with Beatriz and Andara as his traveling apostles, both the government and church accuse him of bedding two women at once. That the church cannot recognize the nobility of Nazarín’s approach is indicative of the pervasive pessimism and disillusionment of his time. Buñuel seems to ask a very obvious question here: is there a place for pure Christianity in a modern world? Nazarín would say that his ideology is more important now than ever yet his continued rejection suggests that the world is as unready for him now as they were for Jesus in his time. Curiously, Nazarín neither preaches his gospel nor does he wish to convert anyone in particular. The irony here is that while he strives for civility, he leaves nothing but chaos in his wake.

Nazarín turns down a job when a group of co-workers tell him that his employment has denied local workers a job-for-pay. Though his boss finds it more profitable to pay him in bread than in pesos, Nazarín would rather go without food than to take a job away from someone hungrier. A series of distant gunshots suggests that the struggle between the workers and their opportunist boss ends in murder. During a chilling series of scenes inspired by de Sade’s Dialouge Between a Priest and a Dying Man, a woman’s death by the plague is every bit as mysterious as the burning questions Andara asks of her spiritual leader. Is the woman’s demise inevitable or has she willingly accepted the afterlife by rejecting Nazarín’s deathbed counseling? With Nazarín, Buñuel embraces the mysteries of spiritual faith while damning a spiritual healer’s refusal to move with the times. Buñuel would forever remain as cynical as the individuals that torture Nazarín and while the film itself remains a subtle attack on religious naïveté, the director would never be as mindful of the possibilities of religious healing as he is here.

94 min
Luis Buñuel
Julia Alejandro, Luis Buñuel, Emilio Carballido, Benito Pérez Galdós
Francisco Rabal, Marga López, Rita Macedo, Jesús Fernández, Ignacio López Tarso, Luis Aceves Castañeda, Ofelia Guilmáin, Noé Murayama