Pastorela

Posted on 10. May, 2012 by in Catholic Family Life, Priests

Pastorela is a morality play within a morality play, set in modern Mexico. The tradition of the pastorela, a Hispanized version of the medieval morality play, is alive and well in Mexico (though, with modernization and secularization, later on, the movie implies that this tradition has been in decline in recent years). This is helpfully explained in the beginning of the movie, which offers English subtitles to supplant the Spanish dialogue. The makers of the movie were aware that it would have some non-Hispanic audience, and as a member of this demographic, I am grateful for the explanatory prologue. It seems these amateur dramatics are generally staged during the Christmas season, a more traditional and historically and culturally rooted riff on the Christmas pageant. The plot seems to be a mixture of a Nativity tableau and the Adam and Eve story, a re-enactment of the standard narrative of the origins of Christianity (and, in part, the other Abrahamic religions). This re-enactment involves an individual dressed in a red devil suit, portraying Satan, confronting an actor portraying St. Michael the Archangel.
cast of the parish pastorela
Importantly, pastorelas are a means for ordinary laypeople in parishes to participate, albeit in a peripheral way, in the ceremonies of the Catholic Church, a role which is usually restricted to those who have been ordained and those higher up in the hierarchy. The implication in this movie is that pastors and parish priests who have any savvy about their congregations know this, and can live with individuals deriving status, self-esteem, and other non-religious benefits of this kind from participation in these morality plays, because it motivates them to rehearse, to donate, and hopefully, to be mindful of the Christian values the morality plays aim to inculcate in their audiences as well as their participants. The old priest in charge of the parish at the beginning of the movie is a good priest in that sense, but, in a nod to the widespread negative publicity about priests breaking their celibacy vows and otherwise engaging in illicit sexual activities, he is portrayed as suffering a heart attack and dying as a result of engaging in sexual intercourse with a nun, who appeared to be a willing participant. (The wrongdoing of the nun in the situation is never exposed, and she remains both undetected and unpunished throughout the picture, except, of course, the fact that for the priest to have died in this fashion, he had to have been doing it with someone… ) Anyway, positive “spin” is put on the death of the priest, and the Catholic hierarchy of the time and place appoints a replacement priest as the due course of events. However, this priest’s personality is quite different from that of his predecessor, who, it was implied, must have had some degree of “live and let live” ethos guiding his actions if he was breaking his vow of celibacy in such dramatic and obvious fashion. The new priest, Fr. Posada, is more of a stickler for orthodoxy, being both an exorcist (a scene based upon the pea soup vomit scene from The Exorcist establishes this fact), and more cosmopolitan. It would seem that pastorelas are apparently more common in smaller and less prestigious parishes than the ones he has been previously assigned to. When briefed on his new parish assignment by the Bishop, who advises him that the annual pastorela performance is “important to the life of the parish”, and thus the production shouldn’t be tinkered with, Fr. Posada claims not to know much about pastorelas. Contrary to the impression that he might have given the Bishop, no sooner than he is established in the parish does Fr. Posada’s start making casting changes and other decisions affecting the pastorela. Though it is not stated openly, the most likely scenario is that the new priest is embarking on this course of action as a means of establishing his authority and trying to put his personal stamp on operations, in much the same way as, in the secular world, new middle-management in some companies will enact new policies, no matter how superfluous or asinine, to have some tangible program of change to point at. This course of action on the part of Fr. Posada may well be a character flaw related to his role as an exorcist: some non-Catholic clergy are critical of the Catholic rite of exorcism as having an element of egotism in it, as the priest personally, as a human, confronts the Devil and/or other demon(s), supernatural entities of greater powers and strength. While this secular equivalent endemic to newly-placed middle managers is the stuff of employee complaints and Dilbert cartoons, Fr. Posada’s decision to remove police commandant Chuco from his long-standing role as the Devil in the production when he fails to make it to the initial audition in time, has more serious consequences. Besides the fact that as a strong and stocky middle-aged man, he has a credible and dominating stage presence as such, he is also a supervisor in a law enforcement establishment which is seen to utilize torture. He takes his participation in the play seriously (albeit in a role which may be disliked and despised by others). He takes a lot of time off from work to have the time and focus to devote to rehearsing his role, and spends money on his costume. Thus it is with considerable resentment that he stews when deprived of his traditional role. Besides making life hell for the colleague of lesser size and presence who was assigned the role, Chuco proceeds with as much open hostility against the priest as the Catholic cultural environment of Mexico allows. An additional complication is that the parish pastorela is entered in a contest for pastorelas, and there is pressure on everyone involved to put their best performance forward. Banished to a peripheral role, Chuco seethes like Satan, and becomes determined to prove that he is perfect for the part of the Devil. When the major role of Michael the Archangel opens up, the priest gives him a try as the avenging angel with the flaming sword, a part he plays with credibility and authority as well, but not with the same gusto as his portrayal of the Devil. Seemingly mollified, he faces the priest playing the part of the devil in the play during the contest, at which the Bishop and other members of the Catholic hierarchy are in attendance.

Police Commandant Chuco, the erstwhile "devil" of the Christmas pageant, confronts the new priest who dares to make casting changes willy-nilly.


Evidence of supernatural involvement makes itself known during the performance at the contest. When Chuco in his role as Michael the Archangel strikes as the costumed Devil with his stage sword, he strikes a little too hard, and the priest’s body breaks to have light issue from it. Newspaper headlines talk about Chuco having killed the priest, and he and his colleague end up in prison. Maybe I just had trouble following things, but the elements of magical realism added to the cinematic production did not add to the quality of the story in my opinion. A band of angels inexplicably brings guns and bombs to the formal performance, while in a direct, albeit passive-aggressive element, at Chuco’s behest, the police department rounds up and arrests “anyone wearing a red costume and/or horns”, meaning that the holding cell is filled with a crowd of costumed devils and a few Santas thrown in for good measure. (It would seem the Christmas season tradition of parish pastorela productions is much more alive and well than it was given credit for.) Having strength in numbers, the costumed devils escape from the overcrowded police station, giving the impression that the hosts of hell have overrun the city streets, in one of the best and most comedic action scenes to have ever been recorded on film stock.

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2 Responses to “Pastorela”

  1. […]   It’s got a lot of substance ripe for interpretation, I read an interesting review on this Catholic Movies site for instance.  In one memorable scene Cosio’s character calls an ‘associate’ who is in the […]

  2. idebenone

    12. Jan, 2013

    Both of these heavenly beings (one a saint the other an angel) have the same purpose: to get rid of the ugliness of sin and temptation in our lives! Consider St. Michael’s role as an archangel and defender against the devil, and you’ll see that same inspiration in the tradition of St. Patrick who, according to tradition, cast out the “evil” snakes from Ireland.