Exploring Buñuel’s early films has been a curious, rewarding task. Even if I do not love all of the films he made while living in Mexico, I consistently find his cynicism and penchant for iconoclasm delightful. That Buñuel was particularly productive during this period, making more than 12 films in the 1950’s alone, allows a viewer to watch the filmmaker’s singular style develop over the course of a decade. It is fitting that he would bookend that period with two of his strongest early films, Los Olivdados (1950) and Nazarín (1959); though the former is one of the director’s most affecting and empathetic works, the latter finds the director developing the penchant for satire and cultural critique which he first evinced in the surrealistic Un Chien Andalou (1929).
Nazarín is, above all else, a tragi-comic adaptation of Jesus Christ’s messianic narrative. Set in rural, poverty stricken districts of Mexico, it tells the story of a Spanish priest whose selfless, Christlike behavior consistently brings him into conflict with the worldly, sinful Mexicans whom he seeks to redeem. The racial politics of this tale are certainly cause for concern. There is no doubt that the image of a fair-skinned, European Christ-figure attempting to evangelize a dark-skinned, native populace is deeply problematic, but one can read this as a sly commentary on the part of Buñuel. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the director’s main purpose of this tale is to satirize impulses toward evangelism by high-minded religious leaders who understand little about the populations they mean to save. Similarly, the film also reveals the vice-ridden peasantry as both comic figures whose impoverishment renders them combative and irrational and embodiments of tragedy, forced to hustle and scheme to eke out an existence in the slums. Though Buñuel populates rural Mexico with a cast of ridiculous figures, the film’s plotting makes it clear that his sympathies lie with them throughout.
There might be a temptation among some critics to read the film as a condemnation of modern society, a world in which egocentrism and sinful delights have inoculated the populace against the positive influence of Padre Nazario. However, that viewpoint assumes that Buñuel, a director whose irreligious provocations toward the catholic church were legendary, has crafted a film based on the idea that the redemption offered by the church is a legitimate and beneficial service. Instead, I would counter that the film’s conclusion, in which Padre Nazario avoids death which is the logical ending of a Christ-narrative, suggests that his humiliations and ultimate loss of status within the church represent the ultimate incompatibility of altruistic, humanistic philosophies with the structures of organized religion and the fragmented, stratified society produced by capitalism.
Nazarín demonstrates decisively that Buñuel developed his preoccupations early in his career and returned to them often in a variety of works, from many different perspectives. Viewers who enjoy the enjoy the tempered misanthropy and anti-bourgeoisie sentiment of The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm will enjoy the political subtexts of this film, even if its narrative structure and visual compositions are more traditional than either of the aforementioned movies.