Luis Buñuel

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Don Willis

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655

The archetypal heroes of the comic, or serio-comic, films of Luis Buñuel such as El (1952), Nazarin (1958) and Simon of the Desert (1965) are pure, in either sense of the word: innocent, simple, homogeneous. They haven't a trace of deceit or hypocrisy and they aren't self-questioning or self-aware. Buñuel doesn't make Nazarin and Simon contradict their moral and religious principles. Instead, he makes them push these to their logical, absurd extreme. Yet the films reveal a dichotomy: the absoluteness of Nazarin, Simon and Francisco, which is their primary strength, is at the same time, in context, their primary weakness, their comic flaw. Buñuel puts his heroes in a multiple perspective which, in effect, defines character as primarily a matter of point of view…. The character Francisco [in El] is seen to be at once cruel, in his wife's eyes, godlike, in his own eyes, and pathetically comic, in Buñuel's. He is, in effect, a synthesis of perceptions….

Nazarin too is an elemental Buñuel character. A priest in Mexico at the turn of the century, he leads an exemplary, modest, Christ-like existence, despite clerical (and anticlerical) pressure. His example, however, is lost on his era's violent society. Although he believes that, living in it, he is a part of it, Buñuel shows that he's apart from it….

Nazarin is mild, likeable, unprepossessing, and has a slight self-consciousness of movement that seems to come from self-effacement. But his subdued and matter-of-fact manner, although it effectively stifles self-importance or self-righteousness, also unfortunately stifles in him the possibility of spontaneity or responsiveness to others. But can he be blamed too badly if, while he's reinforcing the base of his character at one point, it's eroding at another? Nazarin seems to have a natural goodness of spirit which makes him somehow appealing even at his most didactic—perhaps especially then, when one can see a possibility of internal contradiction. (p. 5)

If his spirituality constitutes one form of ignorance, his world's earthiness constitutes another. The exaggeration of both 'true' Christian and heathen/'false' Christian gives the film perfect comic symmetry.

The unpriestliness of other priests in Nazarin is played off against Nazarin's strict constructionism, which in turn is played off against peasant superstition/religion. All ground is quicksand….

To Nazarin 'nature' means 'God'; but 'nature', in the film's context, means 'detachment'….

Nazarin's own lack of ego allows him to reduce everyone and everything else to the same level of importance, or unimportance. His principled concern for all merges imperceptibly into unprincipled indifference. Nazarin is genuinely selfless, but equally to the point is that there would be little distinguishable difference if he were genuinely selfish….

[The] missing link between Nazarin's absolute sense of purpose and the world's indifference is the idea of self-realisation. This is the comic-ironic key to the disparity between intention and actuality…. [When the thief enlightens Nazarin as to his "Worth … in the real world," it] is as if the self-ignorant Buñuel hero had been lifted up out of the narrative and given the opportunity of seeing himself from outside the film. (p. 6)

The primary polarity in Nazarin is not faith/lack of faith or even theism/humanism, but passion/detachment. What his society possesses in abundance, Nazarin initially lacks or suppresses. The film might best be characterised as a story of idealistic detachment transformed into idealistic passion….

At the end, Nazarin's comic denial of his emotions is no longer possible. The final psychic picture of him might be: far from detached, now doubting himself and his purpose, but seeing no better one, he presses on. In Nazarin's final fierceness there are overtones of insanity—if not in a clinical then in a practical sense, given his social context—of obsession, damnation as salvation and, perhaps most importantly, of heroism. (p. 7)

Don Willis, "'Nazarin': Buñuel's Comic Hero Revisited," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1977 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 1, Winter, 1977–78, pp. 5-7.

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