Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory tells the story of a priest in early 20th-century Mexico who endures rejection, betrayal, suffering, and judgment in a way dimly but distinctly evocative of the passion of Christ. He is by no means a particularly virtuous or holy priest; on the contrary, he is a worldly, carnal little cleric, a "whisky priest" with an illegitimate son.
Yet he strives as best he can to do the work of his vocation, to aid souls in need with the sacraments and moral instruction. Tragically, his efforts meet with unbroken indifference, ingratitude, and failure. In the end he is deprived of all consolations, from the satisfaction of having in any way helped even one soul to the hope of having at least pleased God to the succor of a fellow priest who might have heard his confession.
In spite of his near despair, Greene’s priest consistently does one thing right. At every turn, offered an alternative between self-interest and a chance to help others, he reluctantly but invariably sacrifices his own good for the potential good of others. It is always for naught; but his refusal to put his own good, even his own life, before others is unswerving, if reluctant. In this way he is conformed to the image of Christ and vindicates his faith, and, hopefully, his soul.
Luis Buñuel’s Nazarín tells a story that is in some ways strikingly similar to Greene’s, but differs in a number of crucial respects. Unlike Greene’s frail whisky priest, Fr. Nazario (Francisco Rabal) is in almost every way admirable and virtuous. Upright but not sanctimonious or judgmental, devout but not superstitious or unscientific, ascetical but robust and manly, concerned both with the spiritual and temporal well-being of others, Fr. Nazario seems almost the epitome of a good priest.
Yet, like Greene’s whiskey priest, Nazario meets with constant failure and rejection. On one occasion a sick child for whom he prays recovers, but this only causes a pair of superstitious women (alternately suggestive of Mary and Martha or of Mary Magdalene) to regard him with nearly idolatrous devotion, following him like groupies while ignoring his efforts to enlighten or instruct them. In one plague-stricken pueblo the priest finds a young woman on her deathbed and tries to turn her thoughts to spiritual matters, but she wants only to be with her lover and the priest is forced to leave. In the end it seems doubtful that he has done anyone any lasting good.
Yet Buñuel’s interpretation of Nazario’s ineffectiveness apparently offers the greatest point of contrast to The Power and the Glory. Where Greene regarded his whisky priest’s despairing fidelity as a hopeful vindication, Buñuel seems to regard Nazario’s pious impotence as a devastating indictment of the irrelevance of faith.
In a key exchange toward the end of the film, a sympathetic criminal (a type of the Good Thief) says fatalistically, "You’re on the side of good, I’m on the side of evil, but neither of us is any use for anything." This comment goes home like a shot, leaving Nazario lost and foundering.
On the surface, Nazarín’s ostensibly positive depiction of an honorable priest suggests one of those intriguing artistic homages to belief or believers that come now and then from artists who aren’t themselves believers, such as The Gospel According to Matthew, from homosexual Marxist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, or A Man for All Seasons, written and adapted by non-Christian Robert Bolt. (Buñuel was a longtime atheist, though he reportedly experienced a religious conversion toward the end of his life.)
Yet the film’s actual import seems quite the contrary. Nazarín appears to bespeak a religious skepticism so rigorous and thoroughgoing that makes child’s play of the mere scurrilous or muckraking anti-church exposé (e.g., The Crime of Fr. Amaro; Priest). It doesn’t stoop to smug debunking of naive idealism. There’s no heavy-handed manipulation, no dishonest stacking the deck. Buñuel makes his case against faith, not by attacking its foolish or corrupt practitioners, but by arguing that the thing itself, even when lived almost to perfection by a near saint, is moot, even harmful. It may be the most breathtaking cinematic cross-examination of faith I have ever seen.
A good, strong cross-examination that doesn’t muddy the waters with snide scandal-mongering or misdirection of other sorts can potentially be a catalyst for constructive thought and dialogue. Nazarín may be strongly skeptical, yet it is aware of religion in a profound way, and the very attention it gives even to the question of faith bears tacit witness to man’s spiritual dimension. (In his autobiography Buñuel noted that Nazarín had been criticized by French filmmaker Jacques Prévert simply for focusing on a priest as the main character, since, as Prévert fretted, "It’s ridiculous to worry about their problems.")
At the very least, Nazarín is not content either to ignore religion as a non-issue, or to take cheap shots at its practitioners, as some would prefer to do. It’s a deeply problematic film, but one that deserves critical viewing and thoughtful engagement.
Vatican film list (article)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.