Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 6, 2005

“Nazarín”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:10 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on May 6, 2005

I managed to watch the last half of Luis Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados” and all of “Nazarín” last night. I first saw “Los Olvidados” in the early 1960s and had the same reaction to it last night as I did originally. It is a totally unsentimental vision of people living in poverty. Although Buñuel clearly hates the social system that breeds the kind of feral youth depicted in the film, there is not even a glimmer of hope it can be changed.

“Nazarín” is the only Buñuel film I had never seen before. It combines a lot of the elements found in his other works: religious obsession, sexual repression and scabrous behavior among the lower classes. Like “Los Olvidados,” it was filmed in Mexico and offers up a totally bleak view of humanity.

“Nazarín” is the story of a Catholic priest who lives among the poor and takes Jesus’s teachings literally. He is always turning the other cheek, even when local prostitutes steal the bread from his meager table. His uncompromising beliefs are seen as crazy not only by his lumpen neighbors but by the Catholic hierarchy which disowns him after he gives shelter to a prostitute injured in a knife fight.

Driven from his slum neighborhood, Nazarín goes on a pilgrimage in the Mexican countryside (the film is set in the early 1900s and is based on a novel by the Spanish author Benito Perez-Galdos) where he is pursued by two prostitutes, including the one who was stabbed. They are convinced that he is a new Christ and follow him blindly, despite his constant pleas to be left alone. In a quintessentially Buñuelian scene, the priest offers some prayers to a gravely ill young girl while his two disciples and other village women perform what amounts to an exorcism in the bedroom. One rolls around on the floor as possessed by the devil; another strokes the priest with a clump of leaves she understands to have healing powers. He can barely contain his disgust with their behavior. Only God and science can heal the young girl, he says, giving no indication that he understands that the two things are in conflict.

When the girl wakes up the next morning free of her fever, his two female disciples are more convinced than ever of his Christ-like powers. They follow him from village to village expecting miracles, but they experience nothing but grief as the villagers prey upon his guilelessness. Although the film is about the dubiousness of deep spirituality, it will also remind you of Don Quixote, another picaresque tale of the clash between idealism and reality.

About this film Buñuel has said, “I am very much attached to Nazarín. He is a priest. He could as well be a hairdresser or a waiter. What interests me about him is that he stands by his ideas, that these ideas are unacceptable to society at large, and that after his adventures with prostitutes, thieves and so forth, they lead him to being irrevocably damned by the prevailing social order.”

Of course, you could say the same thing about socialists whose morality clashes with society at large and who are often viewed as Quixotic at best. Buñuel was one of the great radical film-makers of the 20th century. His earliest film was “Land Without Bread,” a documentary about poverty in rural Extremadura. Like other radicals, Buñuel was also drawn to surrealism and even worked with Salvador Dali for a time. Unlike Dali, Buñuel had no use for fascism and left Spain after Franco’s victory.

Buñuel died in 1983 at the age of 83. With the disappearance of film revival theaters in NYC and other large cities, especially foreign films of the 40s and 50s, your only recourse is to rent them from local stores or on the Internet. Even though “Nazarín” is listed as being available in VHS according to imdb.com, I have never seen it on the shelves. It is very much to the credit of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) that they are showing such films. Ted Turner gained some notoriety when he made the dubious decision to colorize black-and-white films, often to a jarring effect. There is nothing worse than watching some 1930s noir and seeing Humphrey Bogart or Edward G. Robinson’s face in an almost neon peach glow. As far as I can tell, TCM has abandoned this practice.

1 Comment »

  1. Good review, but a few inaccuracies toward the end. Actually the films Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age D’Or (1930) were the earliest Bunuel films, the former of which was co-written with Dali and was essentially their ticket of acceptance into Andre Breton’s Paris surrealist group. Dali worked on the initial stages of L’Age D’Or but left the project apparently over disagreements with Bunuel about the heavily anti-Catholic content. And it’s a bit of an understatement to say Bunuel was “drawn to surrealism” – he was one of the movement’s prominent members in the late 20s/early 30s and stayed in contact with many of his surrealist friends after the war years. It would be more accurate to say that from surrealism he was drawn to marxism and socialism

    Comment by Eoin — December 20, 2013 @ 10:37 pm


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