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Bunuel's Nazarin

Recently we screened Bunuel's film Nazarin. At the time I happened to be reading Juan Luis Segundo's book The Historical Jesus of the Synoptics, a treatment of the historical Jesus question from the standpoint of Latin American Liberation Theology. If you know anything about either one, you know it was a felicitous coincidence. I want to share with you some musings prompted by this case of synchronicity. 

Nazarin is a Christological parable; this film may be viewed as being analogous to Kazantzakis's & Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ, that is, as a statement of the author's personal impression of the meaning of the historical Jesus. It places its Jesus analogue in poverty-stricken Mexico. No doubt it was the similar scenario of Uruguaian peasantry that led Segundo to espouse Liberation Theology. ­­Segundo sees Jesus as a champion of the rights of the oppressed poor. He argues rather effectively that Jesus' ministry would never have been controversial enough to result in his crucifixion as a rebel leader ("King of the Jews") at the hands of Rome if it had not had a strong element of social/political radicalism. 

Instead we usually hear that Jesus was condemned to death on a sheer misunderstanding or perhaps a frame-up. All this sounds more like desperate rationalization of an unpalatable fact. But in fact such a death is quite consistent with the teaching of Jesus that the Kingdom of God was promised to the poor as such, not the poor "in spirit" as Matthew rationalizes and spiritualizes it. (Compare Matthew's beatitude on the poor in spirit, Matthew 5:3, with Luke's on the poor, period, Luke 6:20.) 

No doubt Jesus' "cleansing" of the Jerusalem Temple was the immediate cause for his death. I cannot help thinking Brandon (Jesus and the Zealots) was in some measure correct in seeing the incident as revolutionary. After all, Jesus did occupy the building, to whatever purpose; it was certainly some kind of protest. And the gospels themselves imply he escaped arrest at the time only because the authorities feared rioting. 

In Nazarin, Father Nazario undertakes no overt acts of protest. Rather, his life is a tacit protest against the state of the world around him. The priest's conflicts with the church hierarchy stem from slander arising from his association with the sinners and outcasts. Here there is a genuine gospel parallel, with the general rumors circulated among the pious to the effect that this Jesus of Nazareth was "a glutton and a boozer, bosom buddy of traitors and reprobates." Likewise Nazario is tarred with the brush of scandal arising from his ministering among prostitutes. You cannot hope to remain unstained by the reputations of sinners if you associate with them, even if your purpose in associating with them is to reform them or to minister to them in their wretchedness.

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the pious: they warn that if you associate with the corrupt, you must necessarily become corrupt yourself. Even if you do not, the pious will have to assume you have. "You support gay rights? Then you must be gay yourself!" 

Those who choose to work with the poor and the sick have to erect a barrier, eventually to retreat, to say "so far and no further" --lest they find themselves dragged under by the undertow and become one of the wretched themselves, a needer of help and no longer one of the givers of it. This is what has happened to Father­ ­Nazario. I do not think it is what happened to Jesus. The gospels tell us he did try to maintain some privacy, even secrecy, in his movements, lest he be besieged and overrun by those to whom he made himself available. Mark tells us he could no longer openly enter towns, that when he and his men retreated to the desert, even there he found himself besieged.   

It seems that in its earliest version, the story of the choosing of the Twelve was introduced by the statement that Jesus had no longer any time even to eat a meal in peace, whereupon his Mother Mary suggested he share the burden with others. The story may not be historical, since it seems to have been modelled on the ancient story in Exodus 18 in which Moses' father-in-law Jethro suggests he appoint elders to bear the burden of the people along with him. But the general picture is striking and probably historical: Jesus was in danger of being dragged down into the very same abyss from which he sought to rescue others. He was perhaps saved from this fate by finding others of like mind to share the work, as Mother Theresa has done. Or perhaps it was simply his crucifixion that did it, forestalling a long, slow expiration by the expedient of a short, violent one. 

Another question the film raises is that of the Imitatio Christi.  The priest is obviously imitating Christ, as I have been presupposing up to now. But in terms of the narrative, it is not quite clear that he has any choice in the matter. He may be spontaneously recapitulating Christ than intentionally imitating him. But the film surely means to raise the model of a true imitation of Christ for our consideration, whether to beckon us to take up the cross, or (as I suppose more likely, coming from Bunuel), to show the absurdity and futility of trying to do so. Should we try to do what Jesus did? 

I have no answer, not that I am particularly struggling with the question. But since it has come up, let me outline the dilemma as I see it. It seems to me that we are damned if we do, and equally damned if we don't. On the one hand, if we, like  Shaw's character Major Barbara, undertake to work among the poor without being poor ourselves, we will be condemned for playing benefactor, condescending, merely slumming.

On the other hand, if we renounce what wealth we have to serve the poor, as we think, authentically, the poor themselves will tell us we are fools. The poor are the last to romanticize poverty. 

Mixed with the supposed benevolence of the self-sacrificing rich is a world-weariness that seeks release from the burden of care that wealth brings. So to renounce wealth as Jesus bade the Rich Young Ruler to do is really a self-enrichment. It is to trade the world for your soul. One is simply trading earthly wealth for heavenly wealth (as Jesus said), in fact gaining heavenly wealth by giving away earthly wealth. And as Zooey says to Franny, wealth is wealth, be it heavenly or earthly, and to covet one is no more noble than to covet the other. 

The rich may also decide to give up wealth out of the guilt and self-hatred one feels precisely for being rich. So to renounce it is to do penance for the good of one's soul. And again, it is one's ­self­ one is serving, not the poor. In our day we call it "salving the conscience." 

In Saint Francis' day, the first really poor men he met, common laborers, thought him a fool and a play-actor for giving up his wealth. If he'd wanted to know the truth from the mouth of the authentically poor, they would have changed places with him in a second. And here is a great irony. Is not Saint Francis, like Father Paneloux in Camus's The Plague, silently assuming the old prejudice that poverty is a state of punishment, that the poor are ipso facto sinners? Only he assumes it is also sinful to be rich! So to atone for his sin, a rich man must embrace punitive poverty, while he secretly frowns on the less-introspective, healthier-minded poor, who show themselves to be sinners indeed in their very desire to escape poverty and embrace sinful wealth! 

Father Paneloux is finally consumed by the plague of liberal self-hatred, done in, really, by a heart ailment, a heart that bleeds too much for the victims who are victims not by masochis tic choice (like himself) but by sadistic fate. 

Faced with such an apparently intractable dilemma, what stance can one take? Perhaps one must decide to accept the reality of the fatalistic proverb "The poor you have always with you," deciding both to help them when you can, and not to let the fact of their plight make your life as miserable as theirs by feeling guilty for not sharing their lot. And it will do neither you nor them any good to decide to share their lot in truth. To jump from Bunuel to Bergman (specifically the final speech of Gustav Adolf Eckdahl in Fanny and Alexander), I suggest you give yourself the luxury of taking shelter in the "little world" of your own life and chosen associations, in full cognizance of the inescapable fact that outside evil breaks its chains and runs amok like a mad dog. It's what the poor would do if they could. 

Robert M. Price


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