Though his care for Andara is entirely platonic, the villagers start to talk, and soon the priest has to leave town. He stays with an ordained friend but quickly gives up his cassock, since the archbishop has been said to want revoke Nazario’s priestly status, and Nazario’s friend does not want to be guilty by association. Nazario expresses little anger at his mistreatment and takes to the countryside in search of work. From this point, he becomes a laboring mendicant, encountering myriad prejudiced, unlikable characters along his journey. People steal from Nazario and he turns a blind eye; he is physically mistreated and his work goes unpaid; he speaks out while witnessing injustices and is himself reprimanded.
Eventually, Andara and Beatriz catch up with Nazario and, against his initial wishes, join him along the way. The women provide a counterpoint to Father Nazario. Consumed by worldly desires and blinded by their own temporal vices, they grasp at goodness and appear to seek redemption through Nazario’s guidance, but it remains beyond their reach. The priest tries time and again to move them away from their earthly wants and toward the promise he sees in a Christian way of life, but the women are set in their ways—Beatriz tempted by desire for Pinto, and Andara driven by vengeance against those who wrong her or her travelling companions.
Despite Nazario’s righteousness, his actions exemplifying the principles of selflessness and non-violence that undergird Christian theology, the film ends with with Nazario alone and stripped of all possessions, with little to validate the worthiness or reward of the priest’s mission. Or maybe it’s because of these qualities; perhaps Nazarín’s ending is to be expected, given how unlikely it might be to find a character in a Buñuel film who so perfectly exemplifies Christ.
Buñuel, after all, had a contentious relationship with religion, and would famously quip, “I’m an atheist, thank God.” He was raised in a wealthy Catholic family in Spain and educated by Jesuits; he served at Mass and took Communion every day. But around the age of sixteen, Buñuel became disillusioned with what he perceived as the Church’s illogicality, as well as its institutional power and wealth.
This sort of anti-institutional disillusionment, part and parcel of modernity’s onslaught, has pervaded the post-colonial era throughout culturally-Catholic nations in Latin America. Faithful to this widespread sentiment, Nazarín depicts the mistrust of a corrupt Church. Alongside his portrayal of a blameless, sacred priest, the institutional criticism Buñuel makes is subtle: Nazario, the only true “Christian” in the film, is disowned by the Church—he’s defrocked for fear of misguided public perception, abandoned by members of the clergy, and never in his life catches a break.
Nazarín also alludes to the evolution of the Church in Mexico during the Porfiriato, from 1876 through 1911. From Mexican independence in the early nineteenth century, the Catholic Church was privileged as Mexico’s sole religion in the nation’s legal framework. However, a division grew between older supporters of the institutional Church and young, liberal reformers, sparking violent conflict between the two sides in the late 1850s, before the three-year Mexican civil war (the “War of Reform”) that culminated in the conservatives’ 1860 defeat. The following two Mexican presidents, Benito Juárez and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, implemented anti-clerical laws that reduced the Church’s influence. But this changed with the thirty-one year presidency of Porfirio Diaz, who sought to strengthen ties with the Catholic Church. Diaz saw Catholicism as fundamental to Mexico’s national identity; he stopped enforcing the anti-clerical laws and Mexico saw renewed investment in Catholic education and press. Notably, the Church’s influence grew in more rural areas—just like Padre Nazario’s surroundings in Nazarín.
Yet the institutional church in Mexico remained corrupt. Nazario, the exemplary Catholic, is divested from the clergy, but continues to spread his message through small acts of charity and kindness. Hope is found in the film, if not through the Church as an institution, then through small actions that reveal Christ in the everyday.