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Beyond Brutality                             


Few films open as brutally as Luis Bunuel’s adaptation of Galdos’s novel Nazarin, a brutality that has little to do with the violence of the images, but instead the violence of the society. After all there are many films that show us violent actions through violent events and violent form. Whether it is the end of Bonnie and Clyde, the beginning of The Wild Bunch or the middle of The Godfather, these are all films of violence, but of the three only Peckinpah’s western has something of Bunuel’s brutality. Within the first three minutes of Nazarin three women discuss another’s thieving, invoke the thief’s thieving mother, and talk about the thief being forced to swallow the buttons and then having them pulled them out of her stomach. A moment later someone else is called a fool, then two kids are roughly handled, and after that the title character talks of having his clothes stolen.

All the while everyone talks over everyone else, and Bunuel’s camera views the events with an indifference that indicates the unshockable. When the woman talks of forcing the thief to swallow the buttons, the camera has moved away from her rantings to travel around the courtyard as it concentrates on something else while the dialogue is still heard off screen. Part of Bunuel’s brutalism here is in an image structure that never gives atrocity an underscoring when it can indicate that it is part of a broader harshness. During a fight between the button thief and the woman accusing her, the film cuts to a reaction shot of one of the women, Beatriz, who will later insist on joining the titular character in his spiritual wanderings. The reaction shot isn’t there, though, to emphasize the violence in front of her eyes, but instead to leave the fight behind for another scene of brutality altogether. The film offers a reverie from Beatriz’s point of view where she shows herself in control of the lover who has spurned her a couple of scenes earlier. Here she fantasises that he can’t leave her even if he tried, and kisses him forcefully as she bites into his lip. When the film comes out of the dream, the fight has been forgotten: it shows Beatriz lying on the ground, her body as if in a state of epilepsy.

If brutality is especially present in Bunuel’s Mexican films of the fifties, it resides in showing a mode of being based on a world of selfish impulse. It is there in Los Olvidados, Susana and El Bruto. In Los Olvidados, the films opens on images of New York, Paris and London as the voice-over informs us of poverty hiding behind society’s wealthy, and then cuts to Mexico City, telling us: “this film shows the real life. It is not optimistic.” Real life here is doing what you have to do to survive, often criminally. When one youth says he has to go to work, another refers to him as a moron. In Susana, the manipulative and sexy eponymous character seduces all the men in the household, and the thuggish behaviour of the brute at the centre of El Bruto, who initially sides with the powerful over the weak, seems more Bunuel’s raison d’etre than the sentimentality that comes out of the brute when he falls in love. To do other than manipulate, control, oppress and bully is a sign of weakness or an act of stupidity, the latter a word commonly utilised in Bunuel’s fifties films in various manifestations: people are morons, fools and idiots.

Yet what happens if the character is a fool not because they have been exploited due to a failure of intelligence (as in El Bruto), out of poverty (Los Olvidados) or desire (as in Susana), but out of a lucid need to do God’s work? Does this show a greater degree of stupidity or an escape from the brutal baseness of the world? Bunuel’s brilliance rests in his refusal to fall down on either side, but instead views the question from perspectives that allow for both possibilities to be plausible. In one scene early on Beatriz tries half-heartedly to hang herself only for the weak beam to break in two. The landlady comes in and tells her if she is so keen to take her own life she should use the appropriate beam; better still throw herself in front of the train where she will have a bigger audience, and the landlady will be saved the publicity of a suicide in her home. The landlady then tells her to go and take food upstairs to the priest, and Nazarin (Francisco Rabal) asks a few questions and suggests she leaves town and returns to her home village. In two minutes of screen time Bunuel offers one character offering harsh truths and another providing kind words, and yet the earlier words by the landlady do not undermine the words of the priest and vice versa. They are both presented as valid angles on existence. When afterwards the priest takes up labouring and agrees to work only for food, this is a problem for others who are employed, with a man working for sustenance denying  labourers the opportunity to work for a living wage. Of course Bunuel ends the scene with harsh irony, with Nazarin picking up his bags and leaving the workers to it, as we hear gunshots going off beyond the frame. However, few would deny the workers would have a point, only that the way the point is made has to pass through Bunuel’s caustic attitude as he sees squabbling and greed over unionisation and workers’ rights.

Bunuel’s purpose seems to be to find a place in between base stupidity and elevated need, so that the director doesn’t fall into easy cynicism, nor ready naivety. If there had only been brutality this would have been cynical, but if the film had sought a socially redemptive dimension through the priest this would have been naive. The achievement lies in showing the possibility of faith (not necessarily in God, but at least in the people) without its probability. It is what we might call, after Pascal, Bunuel’s wager. Pascal believed that it is better to believe in God’s possibility since even if there is a tiny chance of God’s existence, then that is still better than zero percent, and thus it is better to believe than not to believe since faith leaves the smallest of possibilities while not believing leaves no possibility at all. There is little to lose in Pascal’s wager, and that is the point: better to risk belief than the opposite which offers nothing either way. Bunuel’s wager is undeniably more brutal: the probability of God’s existence is very low based on the reality of people’s lives, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility, only the probability. A properly cynical perspective would leave out this possibility, but Bunuel wants the priest’s belief to be that small hope. As the director gives us scene after scene of hopeless manipulation and cruelty, so he allows Nazarin to pass through this milieu with doubts but not without belief. Part of the humour comes from this hopelessness contained within hope, and which often leads to further hopelessness, but where hope isn’t completely extinguished. We can see this in the scene where Nazarin is locked up along with a few others and as he gets pushed around and beaten up he accepts the punishment without retaliation. However a fellow prisoner intervenes and tells the bully to leave Nazarin alone since he isn’t defending himself. The rescuer tends to Nazarin’s wounds, but when they talk he tells the priest that he survives stealing money from churches. Nazarin asks if he would like to change, and the man wonders how; he is as stuck in his personality as Nazarin is stuck in his: “neither of us are much good at all” he says, before asking Nazarin for any money that he has. It’s as though the man is saying that what matters is not whether one is good or bad but the choices one can make from whatever position one happens to be coming from. It is again perhaps an issue of Bunuel’s wager: the idea that someone isn’t good or bad which is of value; it is the capacity to choose within narrow parameters that counts.

From this point of view Nazarin’s journey is towards choice, not the assumption of being good. If he cannot choose, then what is the point of belief? Bunuel’s purpose here seems to be to keep pushing the impossibility of faith whilst showing its presence, and yet, taking into account the interview with the journalists at the beginning of the film, is he in the film’s initial stage choosing? As Nazarin and the two other men sit and talk about his way of life, Nazarin presents his existence as one of inevitability, and his faith secure. In passages quoted almost word for word from Galdos’s novel, Nazarin says that he eats when he is given food, rarely steps into the pulpit and doesn’t challenge outrage but withstands it. His faith he says comes from conformity, and this is faith without choice; it is closer to habit and experience than the angst of indecision. When he talks to the journalists he does not explore his beliefs, he states them. He details the everyday nature of his life and lives without anxiety because he is a human being who does not strive even in relation to his belief in God. If most people in Bunuel’s world are fighting to survive, to struggle with material reality, shouldn’t the priest at least be struggling with spiritual existence? In a passage from Galdos’s book missing from the film, the narrator and the reporter discuss the interview afterwards and the reporter says: “that man’s a charlatan…a confidence trickster who’s solved the age-old riddle of how to get something for nothing, an ingenious rascal who’s developed scrounging to a fine art.” The narrator disagrees: “well, my view, or guess, subject to further information and acquaintance without which I hesitate to pass judgement, is that this saint of ours has a highly developed personality.” Next they ask for the opinion of his landlady, who says: “He’s a saint…believe you me, gentlemen, a proper saint. But since saints get up my nose…why the very sight of them makes me see red…I’d give that father Nazarin a good wallop…In ancient times it seems they worked miracles, and with them miracles they gave people food, and turned stones to fishes, and brought the dead back to life…but now, in these scientific times of ours…what good’s a saint except to give the street urchins something to laugh at…?” The reporter sees a categorical charlatan as the landlady sees a useless but unequivocal saint, while it is the narrator who offers the ambivalent reaction of someone who seeks more information, just as by the end of the film Bunuel will have forced upon both the character and the viewer this very ambivalence: this sense that we always need more knowledge before making certain claims, and thus the director forestalls both idealism and cynicism.

Partly what interests Bunuel is the character’s fundamental uselessness. This gives the film much of its sardonic tone but shouldn’t be taken as a particular position the film takes. The director wants the humour evident in the character’s failure to make much of an impact, but quizzically wonders over why someone might remain obligated to a God that does so little to help the world. In this sense Bunuel might see Nazarin as a greater believer than Christ, since Jesus has the advantage of being socially useful however troublesome. Nazarin is hardly troublesome because he is hardly useful. The closest he gets to making an impression on the societal is negative: in that scene where he is willing to work for food and thus takes paid employment from others. While Jesus is one of the great religious doers, a man turning tables in temples, making the infirm walk, curing leprosy and generating devotion in both his disciples and the people, Nazarin is a believer without empirical justification. Does this not make his belief greater than Christ’s, from a certain point of view, and thus both absurd (hence the humour), but also pathetically tragic?  Nazarin brings to mind a comment Bunuel makes in My Last Breath. “When we were young, love seemed powerful enough to transform our lives. Sexual desire went hand in hand with feelings of intimacy, of conquest, and of sharing, which raised us above mundane concerns and made us capable of great things. Today, if I can believe what people say, love is like faith. It’s acquired a certain tendency to disappear, at least in some circles. Many people seem to consider it an historical, a kind of cultural illusion. It’s studied and analyzed and, wherever possible, cured.” To love in the present climate Bunuel describes would be as absurd perhaps as loving God the way Nazarin does, and could lead us to think of him both as a subject of pathos and ridicule. This ambivalence Christ would of course lack, and so when Gilles Deleuze talks of Bunuel’s “impulses proper to the soul” and adds that there is in Bunuel a “radical critique of religion [that] would gain nourishment from the sources of a possible faith, the violent critique of Christianity would give a chance to Christ as person”, we might also add that it is Christ as person without not only the institutions but also without the charisma: without the capacity to generate miracles and admiration. Christ is not a humble individual; Nazarin clearly happens to be, and so the former cannot easily fall into Bunuel’s tone that often vacillates between the humorous and the pathetic, while Nazarin is the perfect figure of religiosity for a filmmaker always interested in the ambivalence of feeling.

Yet at least Nazarin’s love for God protects him from obsessive feelings towards other people, a common theme in Bunuel’s work from El Bruto (the titular individual’s) to El (the wealthy central character’s), from Belle de Jour (Pierre Clementi’s gangster) to That Obscure Object of Desire (Fernando Rey’s rich bourgeois). Nazarin might have more faith in the people than others, but he isn’t infatuated with any of them, unlike the dwarf’s love for Andara and Beatriz’s adoration of a bullying macho, Pinto. It is as though part of Bunuel’s wager here would be better to have love for God than for a creature too fluid to be worthy of worship. Whether God exists or not, he can at least be viewed as a constant. He is worthy of one’s devotion not because of his capacities, as we find in Christ’s ability to utilise God’s powers on earth, but for his constancy: his ability to remain “eternally firm” in Kierkegaard’s phrase. When Deleuze talks about the impulse in Bunuel’s work we may notice it can take the humanly or spiritually perverse: it can take the form of a fetishistic obsession as it does in El, The Diary of a Chambermaid and Belle de Jour, or spiritual purpose, as we find in Nazarin and Simon of the Desert. In both instances Bunuel will present the action as perverse, as if possessed of a dimension beyond ready norms. If the dwarf and Beatriz might lose their mind in their love of others; Nazarin aims to find God in his faith in people. He wants not to love anyone but God; he does however hope to find in the masses an admiration that can justify the idea of a God.

This is an awkward paradox, but not an uncommon one, yet it is Bunuel who explores it better than any other filmmaker. The paradox is basically how can one have faith in the eternally firm if to possess this faith one also needs to believe in the redemptive possibilities in the human species. It is not that we need to love another to love God, but there needs to be a love of humanity for there to be a love of God. To hate man but love God is not usually a theological option, but a common one is to accept mankind’s faults and see them redeemed through a higher being to whom one aspires, and hopes others will aspire likewise.

Though critics often see Bunuel as a cynic, this seems sometimes a superimposition more than an analysis. The great critic Manny Farber in Negative Space talks of Bunuel’s “cock-eyed primitive cynicism” for example, while Pauline Kael writes that El is a “mocking study of irrational love and jealousy”. (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) However, Bunuel’s work seems too shot full of constructive uncertainty for ready cynicism. Doesn’t the work instead suggest the idealistic and the fetishistic, the love of God as transcendent being, and the fetish as transcendent object? Whether it is the central character in El, or Nazarin here, there is the need to transform the world through one’s beliefs about it. In Nazarin, the priest accepts God’s mysterious ways; in El Francisco turns his wife into the devil, insisting he sees infidelities wherever he looks. Bunuel seems less cynical, than wryly aware that people search for the impulses of the body as they also search out the impulses of the soul, and sometimes get them mixed up. Applying impulses of the soul towards the body may lead to the fetish (El, The Diary of a Chambermaid, That Obscure Object of Desire), but it might also lead more directly to faith, as in Simon of the Desert and Nazarin. Bunuel’s work would be much less interesting if he were given to assuming simply that all impulses are base, but often the problem resides in confusing high and low, not from a claim that all impulses reveal human baseness.

Yet we opened by proposing that Nazarin brutally explores its Mexican milieu, and that Bunuel’s film contains a brutality not commonly seen even in films that are obviously violent. However, if we differentiate between violence and brutality, we can better understand Bunuel’s world, and also understand the need for belief out of the brutality often presented. If a film is violent this doesn’t necessarily mean it is brutal, just as there are brutal films with little violence. Kes, Loulou, Husbands and Nil by Mouth are all brutal films, and they may contain moments of horrible violence (the death of the bird in Kes, the wife’s beating in Nil by Mouth), but the filmmakers point up the brutal everyday reality over the singularity of violent acts. The Godfather doesn’t present a brutal world (it is the mismatch between the violence and the discretion exemplified in the christening/assassination cross cut that makes it so shocking), and nor does many an action film that focuses upon the violence a man might have to do to protect the non-violence in which he lives: the violence is the exception to the gentle rule he and his family lives by, a point explored in all its manifestations brilliantly in A History of Violence.

But a brutal world may not have any great act of violence, but often possesses an absence of empathy, consideration and generosity. This is the world Bunuel often presents to us, and so where a violent action demands to be met with counter-aggression, a brutal milieu cannot be met in the same way. One cannot fight a milieu as one can fight an opponent, and while the violent world works well with dramatic notions of central conflict where someone wants something and somebody else is determined to stop them getting it, in a brutal existence there is not always such a ready, and readily tangible, duel. The requirement would be not to meet the brutal but retreat from brutality, to find a position on the world that allows one to escape the permeating conflict and believe in a different environment. This would be the impulse of the soul Deleuze talks about, at odds with the brutal impulses often practised elsewhere.

This of course doesn’t mean the one can easily replace the other, and thus Bunuel often acknowledges the difficulty, but if he were more of a cynic he would acknowledge instead its impossibility. Sure, at the end of Nazarin we see Beatriz return to the brutal lover who humiliated her earlier in the film, but the impulse of the soul was never Beatriz’s but always Nazarin’s. When near the end of the film someone insists she loves Nazarin as a man, she exclaims it’s a lie and has fit of hysterics not unlike the earlier one in response to El Pinto. Here is a woman given to infatuation more than revelation, and we oughtn’t to be too surprised when she returns to her former abuser. Such an impulse is still base, where revelation is not: it attempts to go beyond the boundaries of brutality, not stay within the realm of its possibility. In other words if Beatriz is infatuated, then she is at the mercy of the figure of that infatuation. But if there were revelation instead of infatuation, she might have found a way to escape the impulses of others. She is not presented as a figure ever likely to stay within the contours of the impulses of the soul.

However, maybe Nazarin needs a hint of revelation that allows for the possibility of the opposite – the base impulse – to firm up the revelatory. When at the end of the film a woman offers him a pineapple and says may God be with you, Nazarin initially declines the offer as though in a moment of absolute crisis. The music comes in as he looks fraught and anxious; seconds later he accepts the offer as if reaffirmed in his belief, and seems almost surprised to see it shared by someone else. It is not at all an uplifting ending, but it isn’t a cynical one either. It is a fine example of Bunuel’s radical ambiguity, where we might assume the priest has finally allowed the horror of doubt into his existence, or the moment where his belief becomes properly manifest. It is as though Nazarin has become so used to the lack of kindness of strangers, so used to the brutality of this world, that a moment of disinterested consideration can invoke a crisis. It would seem to be the very space Bunuel has searched out. It is a space that isn’t proposing the absurdity of a belief in God, but it isn’t either insisting on epiphanically showing belief either.

In this sense Bunuel is very different from such marvellous and surely unequivocally spiritual directors like Dreyer, Bresson and Tarkovsky, filmmakers all interested in creating a belief through images that could lead us to see the possibility of the soul. Bunuel’s films are no less shot through with the imagery of faith (churches evident in El, Tristana and Belle de Jour; priests in The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire), but the religious is never ‘faithfully’ presented because of the ambiguous aspect it contains. At the same time though, there is a need to escape the brutality for a meaning and dignity elsewhere. Where this other place can be found is a question Nazarin as much as any other Bunuel film asks.


©Tony McKibbin