Mexican Carnival:

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


  • Lars Nowak Hunan Normal University, Changsha, China


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.

Author Biography

Lars Nowak, Hunan Normal University, Changsha, China

Prof. Dr. Lars Nowak is a Full Professor for German Media Culture at Hunan Normal University in Changsha, China. He was a Junior Professor for Media Studies at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg from 2011–2018 and a Visiting Professor for Film Studies at Freie Universität Berlin from 2019–2020. He is a member of the Interdisziplinäres Medienwissenschaftliches Zentrum at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and the Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft. Nowak studied Theater Studies, German Literature and Philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin and received his doctorate in Media Studies from Bauhaus-Universität Weimar for the thesis "Deformation und Transdifferenz: Freak Show, frühes Kino, Tod Browning." He was a member of the editorial board of the ejournal Nach dem Film from 2001–2007, a teaching assistant at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar from 2005–2008 and a postdoctoral researcher at the Historisch-Kulturwissenschaftliches Forschungszentrum Trier at the Universität Trier from 2009–2011. From 2011–2015, Nowak headed the research project Die Wissensräume der ballistischen Photo- und Kinematographie, 1860-1960 funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. His work focuses on American and European film history, auteur and experimental film, cinematic genres, narrative film theory, photography, cartography and connections between media history and the history of the sciences. Among his publications are Deformation und Transdifferenz: Freak Show, frühes Kino, Tod Browning (Berlin 2011), KartenWissen: Territoriale Räume zwischen Bild und Diagramm (ed. with Stephan Günzel, Wiesbaden 2012), Medien – Krieg – Raum (ed., Paderborn 2018), Filmische Moderne: 60 Fragmente (ed. with Oliver Fahle, Lisa Gotto, Britta Neitzel, Hedwig Wagner, André Wendler and Daniela Wentz, Bielefeld 2019) and Bild und Negativität (ed., Würzburg 2019).