Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nazarin


I have always wanted to write an essay comparing Luis Buñuel's Nazarin (1958) with John Ford's The Fugitive (1947). Both films are about a priest on the run - Buñuel's because he is accused of consorting with prostitutes, Ford's because the revolution in Mexico turned temporarily anti-clerical. Both films were photographed by Gabriel Figueroa on Mexican locations. Buñuel's film is based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. Ford's film was based on Graham Greene’s The Labyrinthine Ways – otherwise known as The Power and the Glory.

In the space of a few minutes, Ford destroys the subtlety of the novel by establishing Henry Fonda as a Christ figure. Greene’s protagonist was a failure as a priest and as a man, and the outlawing of his vocation only brings his weaknesses to light. That his weaknesses also make him a very real and human character, I doubt that either John Ford or his scenarist Dudley Nichols knew or even cared. The only conceivable way the film might be enjoyed is as a photographic achievement – but therein lies the limitation of film. All of the inner life that Greene explores cannot even begin to be suggested by the melodramatic lighting and black-and-white compositions of Gabriel Figueroa. (Emilio Fernandez, whose film Maria Candelaria (1944) was admired by Ford, is credited as associate producer, but is rumored to have been a co-director.)

Ford probably made the film as an excuse to wallow in his obscene Catholic symbolism, just as in The Informer (1935). Vernon Young got it right as long ago as 1957: “what explanation justifies Ford (and again [Dudley] Nichols) for scrapping Graham Greene’s harrowed whiskey-tippling and woman-fumbling priest in favor of a soulful prig?”

Needless to say, I hadn't the stomach to attend Greene's funeral. Next to Ford's typically fulsome pieties, Buñuel's Nazarin is represhingly impious. The title, of course, refers to Jesus the Nazarene, whom Nietzsche called the last Christian.

Father Nazario has to take to the road in late 19th century Mexico after he has been exposed for having relations with a prostitute named Andora, whom he had merely sheltered and cared for in his humble room after she had been stabbed. To make matters worse, the crazy woman sets fire to the priest's furniture to get rid of the smell of her noxious perfume, managing to burn down the inn in the process. Andora and another woman named Beatriz decide to accompany Nazario. Beatriz is attempting to escape from Pinto, whom she loves passionately but who humiliates her.

Along the way, this curious group of pilgrims has a series of encounters which reveal Nazario's inability to live in the world. He upbraids a colonel for humiliating a poor traveler, calling his behavior anti-Christian, barbaric and mean. He tells him that the traveler "has dignity like any tyrant past, present and future". The colonel goes for his pistol, but another in his party tells him that Nazario is a "heretic".

Buñuel's point, I think, is that Christian principles are impossible to live by. It is not that society makes it impossible for Nazario to live according to Christ's teachings, but that life itself makes it impossible. When Nazario goes to see a sick young woman named Lucia, he tries to comfort her with the same old arguments. "Think of this life only as a road," he tells her. But she wants only one thing: "Juan".

"Forget the passions of this world," he pleads with her. "Think only of heaven."

"What heaven?" she mutters. "Juan."

Juan arrives, and says to Nazario, "You can go. We don't need you any more."

"I'm a priest," he tells Juan. "I beg you to let me help in this." Lucia, her eyes closed, says, "Juan, tell him to go." She has all she needs. Outside, Nazario tells Beatriz, "I have failed." But his failure was not to persuade Lucia to forget Juan and think of heaven. He failed because his doctrine was rejected.

Finally thrown into prison, Nazario is about to get a beating when another man intervenes. They sit down and talk. Nazario tells the man, "You are good."

"Good? Me? Don't believe it. I'm one of the worst."

"Don't you feel bad at times about what you've done?"

"When I'm alone. But then my friends come around and . . ."

"Would you like to be good?"

"Well... But how?"

"It is enough to say 'I want to be good.' and you have the steadfastness to be it. You'd like to change your life, wouldn't you?"

"Would you like to change yours?"

"How?"

"Well, I only make mischief, and what does your life have to offer? You are on the good side and I am on the bad. Neither of us serves any purpose."

The final scene is the best thing in the film. Nazario is being escorted along a road by a soldier. Beatriz and Pinto pass him in a wagon, but Beatriz, totally absorbed by her love for Pinto, fails to notice the priest. Nazario's guard stops to eat an apple from an old woman's cart. She asks the guard if she can give a pineapple to the prisoner, but when she offers it to Nazario with the words, "Take this charity, and may God be with you" he looks at her at first astonished, then frightened, and walks away from her. She asks him again to take it, and he mutters, "No, no." When the old woman gives up and moves away from him, Nazario stops her, takes the pjneapple and tells her, "May God repay you for this, madam." He turns and quickly walks away with the guard, weeping. The sound of drums rises on the soundtrack and the film closes.

There are two typically surrealist moments in the film that, as usual in a Buñuel film, stand out like sore thumbs. The first is when Andara looks up and is startled by a portrait of Jesus, which depicts him laughing raucously. The other is when Beatriz dreams of embracing Pinto, only to bite his lip so savagely that blood spills from his mouth.

The film's biggest flaw is that it is technically feeble. There is a noticeable difference in the technical quality of Buñuel's Mexican films and those he made in France and Spain. He later wished, for example, that he could've made The Exterminating Angel (1962) in Spain, since sacrifices had to be made with some details of the production in Mexico.

But what Nazarin suffers from most is the tedium of its argument - that a priest's convictions should prove to be untenable the moment he comes in close contact with reality is neither a novel idea nor a very edifying one. French literature abounds with such tales - Zola handled it head-on in a novel that Georges Franju made into a vividly beautiful film in 1970 called La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret.

But Buñuel is clearly not interested in humiliating his protagonist. The world that Buñuel shows us is one that is filled with half-demented people riddled with preposterous superstitions and beset with a rigid class system. Men and women are born into a certain station and die there.

I disagree with the criticism that Buñuel was deliberately trying to make Nazario look ridiculous. In fact, he doesn't look ridiculous - only a failure. The people all around him seem to be acting out parts in a drama that were already written for them when they were born.

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