Luis Buñuel‘s self-imposed exile in Mexico from 1946-1964 yielded a fruitful harvest, and his films from this period are, arguably, his most organic and economically composed. The director listed Nazarin, based off the Benito Perez Galdos novel, as a film he felt much affection for, and that affection extended to the character Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal). Buñuel’s paternal attachment to this child/film was sincere enough that when the film failed to win the Prix de l’Office Catholique (Catholic Film Prize), he could express a sense of relief.
The saturnine Fr. Nazario lives in a phantasmagoric haze, imagining that he is following the commandment of Christ to “take up one’s cross,” but only disaster lies in the stations Nazrio visits. Nazario does not build his house on rock, but on mud. He keeps company with a menagerie of freaks: beggars, thieves, whores, and a dwarf. Nazario refrains from bolting his door, despite the fact that his mob plunders his abode daily. He is relieved of all possessions, save his Sunday best and crucifix. Thank God for that. He befriends the suicidal Beatriz (Marga Lopez), whose self destructiveness is birthed from her incessant need for the abusive man who regularly deserts her.
Nazario provides shelter to Beatriz’ homely prostitute sister, Andara (Rita Macedo) after she is wounded in a knife fight. Andara has killed her rival and is hiding from local authorities. The local Church learns of the living arrangement and accuses Nazario of improprieties. Beatriz and Andara become Nazario’s Mary and Martha, but the paradox of the priest’s hypocrisy is that he pragmatically shuns Andara’s imaginative qualities, labeling it a “sickness.” Yet, Bunuel invests this setup with an inviting sense of irony. Nazario is himself the product of a delusional priestly calling. Imagining himself to be an imitation of Christ, Nazario projects a disdain for his own welfare that is not self-contempt, but rather the publican advertising his asceticism.
In this, Nazario is a bland, literal-minded interpreter of Christ’ personality. He is unable to comprehend and assimilate the Jesus’ quixotic “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the spirit is spirit,” synthesized with the value of the messianic claim of gifted joy, abundantly imparted.
Nazario’s provision of sanctuary for his female disciples results in a house fire. The loss of asylum and the sanction of the Church catapults the threesome into agnostic stations as they are pursued by the law. A young village girl is believed to be healed by Nazario, despite the fact that medicine had been administered to the child before Nazario’s arrival. The three wayfarers come upon another village, ravaged with the plague. Nazario seeks to assist a dying woman (in a scene clearly patterned after de Sade’s Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man), who refuses the priest’s impassioned and persistent offer to administer extremes unction. Rather, her dying desire is for the touch of her husband. Much to his confusion and exasperation, Nazario’s priestly function is rendered impotent.
Nazario’s offer to join a road crew and work only for food creates a labor dispute which ends with the workers killing their foreman. Beatriz’ mother accuses her daughter of carnal love for the priest. Hysterical, Beatriz denies it, collapsing in a frenzy. Of course, her fervent denial masks truth, which she belatedly realizes, rejecting her savior in favor of her abusive boyfriend.
Caught and imprisoned, Nazario encounters the two thieves on the side of his symbolic cross. The unrepentant thief beats him. The penitent thief confounds Nazario, telling him, “You are a good man. I am evil, yet neither of us are of any use to the world.” The wanderer, freed from prison, is offered a choice in the form of manna. Nazario’s hesitant decision justifies Bunuel’s placid sympathy for the impoverished padre.
Buñuel once said that if proof of the existence of God was available, then his own approach to art and life would remain unaltered. Simultaneously, if God were proved a complete myth, the aesthetic qualities of Buñuel’s existential letters remain the same. Buñuel’s messages are neither Christian, nor atheist, but a synthesis. He categorically denies the agendas of the agnostic, the seeker, the devout, and even the Surrealists in Nazarin.
There is reason Orson Welles astutely claimed that Buñuel was the most religious of all filmmakers. There is a story (most likely apocryphal—not that it matters), that a male acquaintance “caught” the famous atheist philosopher Martin Heidegger genuflecting before an icon. Called out, Heidegger responded, “a rationalist like yourself would not understand.” That quote could serve as a segue into Nazarin.