Mexican Carnival:

Profanations in Luis Buñuel’s Films Nazarín and Simón del desierto


This article adds to previous interpretations of Luis Buñuel’s ambiguous attitude towards Christianity by means of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of profanation as developed in his theory of carnivalism. Earlier approaches to Buñuel have either paid too little attention to the question of how his Mexican films, the largest share of his work, were influenced by the cultural context of their production, or they have explicitly denied such an influence. In contrast, this essay tries to demonstrate, on the basis of Nazarín (1959) and Simón del desierto (1965), that Buñuel’s textual strategies of profanation were informed by his experiences as an emigrant in the United States and Mexico, and by ideas concerning the Mexican amalgamation of Spanish Catholicism and indigenous religious beliefs. The title characters of both films, a Catholic priest and an ancient stylite, have chosen lifestyles that are meant to bring them closer to God, but alienate them from their fellow men and their own physical existence. Yet, both movies restore their protagonists’ ordinary humanness and connection to material reality with the help of various carnivalesque profanations that find expression in spatial movements within the vertical as well as the horizontal dimension. The horizontal movements comprise the micro- and the macro-geographical level and link the old world with the new world, which includes both the Mexican countryside and New York City. The essay uses these observations to compare Buñuel with other European Surrealists in Mexican exile, who shared his ambivalence towards religion, but sometimes lacked the high degree of critical differentiation with which he looked at Mexican culture.