La Furia Umana
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  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
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GILBERTO PEREZ / The Priest and The Pineapple. Buñuel’s Nazarini

GILBERTO PEREZ / The Priest and The Pineapple. Buñuel’s Nazarini

One of the last films Luis Buñuel made in Mexico, within a commercial movie industry where he found freedom enough for his surrealist art, was Nazarín (1959), based on the 1895 novel of the same title by his fellow Spaniard Benito Pérez Galdós (whose Tristana he adapted a decade later). A character with something exotic about him, something foreign to his environment (Francisco Rabal, a Spanish actor, plays him in the film, set in the same period as the novel but in Mexico rather than Spain), Nazarín is a saintly priest who not only preaches but in every way seeks to practice the teachings of Christ, renouncing all earthly possessions and even breaking away from the church in uncompromising pursuit of the true Christian life his conscience dictates. There were Catholics at the time who hailed Nazarín as a religious film and thought that Buñuel the unbeliever had come around to the faith. He soon laid that notion to rest with his well-known remark: “Thank God I am still an atheist.”

Nazarín’s way of life, in the film as in the novel, is an imitation of Christ. His story, insofar as its meaning resides in that parallel, is an allegory. As Angus Fletcher has said of the allegorical character, Nazarín has an absolutely one-track mind and does not allow himself the slightest divergence from a set pattern of behaviorii. He personifies an idea of life conducted strictly according to Christian principles by which he defines himself and everything he encounters in the world. But both Galdós’s novel and Buñuel’s film hinge on an ambiguity as to whether the protagonist is inspired or misguided, a saint or a fool. The Christian allegory is called into question through a realistic irony; a tension arises between the meaning of life found in following Christ and the facts of actual existence.

This irony, this tension, is more marked in the film. When Nazarín goes into a plague-stricken town and offers help, a scene in the film that is not in the novel has the priest trying to console a dying woman with talk of Heaven, but she tells him she doesn’t want Heaven, she wants Juan, the man she loves. And Juan arrives, sends away the priest preoccupied with the salvation of her soul, and tenderly kisses her pestilential lips. Two women accompany Nazarín in his pilgrimage, two Magdalenes to his Christ: Andara, a feisty common prostitute, and Beatriz, a hysteric consumed with love for a brutish man, Pinto, who treats her badlyiii. In the novel Andara and Beatriz are both seen to benefit from their faith in Nazarín and what he represents; Beatriz is able to let go of her obsession with Pinto thanks to her attachment to the saintly priest. But in the film, when her mother points out to her that her attraction to the priest is physical, not just spiritual, Beatriz relapses into hysteria and Pinto carries her off in his arms. Like the novel, the film portrays Nazarín sympathetically as a good man with the best intentions to do good, but it conveys a stronger sense that the good man doesn’t actually do much good in the world.

Along with the two Magdalenes, a bad thief and a good thief figure in the story: when Nazarín is put in prison among common criminals, one of them beats him up and another defends him. The priest thanks his defender and asks him if he doesn’t want to be good, if he wouldn’t like to change his life. Here the film departs decisively from the novel. In the novel the good thief, in keeping with his biblical counterpart, embraces the righteous change of life set out for him. In the film he asks the priest in turn: “Wouldn’t you like to change yours?… Your life, what’s it good for? You on the good side and I on the bad side, neither one of us is good for anything.” Nazarín is dumbstruck. Never before at a loss for words, his flowing pious phrases always at the ready, now he says nothing at all, on his face a look of consternation rather than his usual high-minded serenity, and from here on he scarcely speaks. It’s Nazarín’s life that has been changed. If Christ on the cross felt that God had forsaken him, Nazarín seems to feel forsaken by the ideas that have ruled his life and the words on which he has relied to express them, by the imitation of Christ that until now has defined him. Buñuel brings to the breaking point the irony his film shares with Galdós’s novel, the tension between allegory and reality. The unchanging allegorical character changes after all, and changes momentously: if Christ died on the cross and rose to Heaven, Nazarín comes down to earth and finds his lofty notions unavailing, his sense of life thrown into crisis.

The priest is separated from the other prisoners and assigned his own guard, who leads him back to the city on foot. Beatriz rides off with Pinto on the same road, but as their carriage passes by, her head resting on her lover’s shoulder, she takes no notice of Nazarín, and the downcast, brooding priest is equally unmindful of her. The guard stops with his prisoner at a roadside stand, bites into an apple he doesn’t pay for, and shrugs when the vendor, a peasant woman, asks him if she may give the prisoner something. She offers Nazarín a pineapple. Nazarín has never had any qualms about accepting charity; as well as giving to others, receiving what others give him has been for him a matter of Christian principle, in no way diminishing his priestly dignity. Yet now, faced with the pineapple, he looks perplexed, perturbed, and recoils from the woman’s gift. Drums start to be heard on the soundtrack. (The drums he heard as a child during Holy Week in Calanda left an enduring impression on Buñuel, whose first sound film, the oneiric, satirical L’Age d’or [1930], also has a final sequence accom­panied by a sustained drum roll.) After a moment of hesitation, Nazarín changes his mind, takes the pineapple from the peasant woman, thanks her with an uneasy smile (“May God repay you”) and walks forward carrying her sweet spiny gift as the drums play on and the film comes to an end.

This ending is Buñuel’s own – nothing of the sort occurs in the novel. What does it mean? What does the initially refused, finally accepted gift signify? And why a pineapple? It is a fruit of rough texture and substantial body, a palpable representative of the material reality the priest is coming to grips with. It is good to eat, but you can’t just bite into it as the guard bites into an apple, taking it for granted as his due. The pineapple is a prickly, rather unwieldy fruit, a gift you have to do some work to appre­ciate. It may be construed, then, as a symbol of the gifts we are given on this earth, the sweetness together with the thorniness of physical existence. (If one thinks of the pineapple as a kind of apple and associates it with the biblical forbidden fruit, one could read this ending as allegorizing Nazarín’s fall from grace. But piña, the Spanish word for pineapple, has no “apple” in it.) The pineapple is also a fruit native to the New World, a gift of the Mexican earth, and the film’s Nazarín is a European transplanted to Mexico – born of Spanish parents, educated in Spain, played by a Spanish actor with a Castilian accent – so that the pineapple he is given may be taken to stand for the Mexican reality he has been given to live in.

Beginnings and endings, the boundaries of a work, have special importance to its construction and its rhetoric. Like the beginning of Un Chien andalou, the ending of Nazarín is the film’s boldest and most resounding stroke. As William S. Pechter writes, «though the specific effect on Nazarín of the woman’s gift of the pineapple following his disillusionment with saintliness may not be knowable, the affective impact that the woman’s mundane charity has on him is unmistakable in every detail of the scene’s realization, from his stunned bewilderment to the final, shattering roll of drums; indeed, it is a case of the final moment of the film (like the last line of Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold) retrospectively transforming everything that we have experienced before»iv. That Nazarín at first refuses the pineapple implies that he has renounced, or is at least seriously questioning, his lifelong belief in Christian charity; and it must be on new or at least renewed terms that he finally comes to accept the woman’s mundane charity. Christian charity calls for humility in giver and receiver alike, but humility as a lofty principle has about it a certain pride, a detachment from common humanity, which Nazarín’s saintliness hasn’t been free of. Now, however, it is with something like true humility, as one human being receiving the kindness of another on the ground where they both stand, that the priest takes the pineapple offered to him. Perhaps he has fallen from heavenly grace, but he may be on the road toward such grace as can be reached down here on this earth, the kind of grace the peasant woman demonstrates with her spontaneous gift to a stranger in trouble, the grace under pressure of living in the world.

Critics of idealism and debunkers of spirituality themselves often idealize the practical and material and celebrate the blessings of the physical world. Not Buñuel. He doesn’t see much to celebrate in the physical world he depicts, the plague killing the woman who wants Juan, the sexuality driving Beatriz to hysteria and binding her to Pinto, the stunted body of a dwarf who incongruously falls in love with Andara. And yet the dying woman has a moment of bliss when Juan comes and kisses her, and the dwarf too has his bliss, touchingly, by virtue of his capacity for love, which he bestows without hope on a woman twice his size, unattractive, disreputable, but by him, as he puts it, esteemed. Born of the body, the dwarf’s love, like the dying woman’s, comes up against the limits of the body. Their bliss is attained in humility, the recognition of limitation. Even Pinto shows some humility in his wanting Beatriz back despite her attachment to the priest, and though there’s little more hope for her future with Pinto than for the dwarf’s with Andara, her submission to the lover taking her away at least gives Beatriz her moment of bodily bliss. All around the forlorn Nazarín, this humility before the physical, this acceptance of our material human nature, not because it is good but because it is. The good priest takes the pineapple and joins the rest of humanity.

Tragedy is about isolation, comedy about incorporation into human society, as Northrop Frye says; and he notes that in tragedy «hybris is the normal precipitating agent of catastrophe, just as in comedy the cause of the happy ending is usually some act of humility»v. Buñuel’s Nazarín may be seen as a tragic character who at the transformative end takes the first step toward comedy.

Gilberto Perez


i This is a section of Gilberto Perez’s forthcoming Rhetoric of Film, to be published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright © 2010 by Gilberto Perez.

ii «If we were to meet an allegorical character in real life,” Fletcher wrote, “we would say of him that he was obsessed with only one idea, or that he had an absolutely one-track mind, or that his life was patterned according to absolutely rigid habits from which he never allowed himself to vary». Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode,Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1964, pp. 40-41.

iii According to Buñuel, «Beatriz could be the Magdalene and Andara would be a feminine version of St. Peter (for example: Peter pulls out the sword when Christ is arrested; Andara hits a guard when Nazarín is arrested)» This (in my translation) is from his interviews with José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Luis Buñuel: prohibido asomarse al interior, Joaquín Mortiz /Planeta, México 1986, p. 122.

ivWilliam S. Pechter, “Buñuel,” in Twenty-four Times a Second, Harper & Row, New York 1971, p. 219.

vNorthrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1957, p. 210.