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I’m not even sure how to describe this surreal film by Spanish director Luis Buñuel other than as Buñuelesque Surrealism. Simon of the Desert was shot in black and white and was the last film in which Buñuel used Mexican actors or collaborated with the great Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa.
The protagonist is a Christian ascetic named Simon (Claudio Brook) who does penance and hopes to achieve worthiness in the eyes of God by spending his life atop a column in constant prayer and meditation subsisting wholly on lettuce and water. The character is modeled on Saint Simon Stylites.
The movie opens with the Bishop presenting Simon with a 25 foot column to replace the 10 foot one he’s been standing on for 6 years, 6 months and 6 days. Book of Revelation, anyone? This new column is a gift from a wealthy donor. Even those who eschew materialism still depend on wealthy benefactors to pursue their goals.
During one of Simon’s contemplations he hears a little girl singing and taunting him. When he asks who she is, she responds that she’s just “an innocent little girl”. The innocent girl is Mexican legendary actress Silvia Pinal as the Devil all decked up in a Belle Epoque sailor suit, gartered stockings and a hula hoop for good measure. When Simon asks her where she’s from and where is she going, the Devil impishly replies “From over there”. and “Going over there”. What arrived as a Lolitaesque temptress departs as a naked, decrepit crone promising to return.
This would be Pinal’s third and final project with Buñuel, having already starred in “The Exterminating Angel” and “Viridiana”.
There’s a bit of black humor as well. There’s a scene with a possessed monk cursing every tenet of his religion while the other monks bless what he curses and curse what he blesses until some of them get so confused they start cursing along with him.
The Devil returns to tempt Simon again. Blasphemously dressed as Christ the Good Shepherd and holding a lamb in his/her arms. Simon is transfixed believing the visitor to be Jesus until he/she drops the lamb and kicks it. Again the evil one departs threatening to return. And return he/she does in a self-propelled coffin across the desert, casket opening to reveal the Devil again with exposed right breast and wild hair.
This time the Devil tells Simon to prepare for a long trip. The screen is is now filled with the image of a commercial airplane zooming across the sky. And like that Simon and the Devil leave behind a medieval desert and reappear in a 20th century night club. Simon now sporting a fringe and smoking a pipe looks more like a middle aged beatnik than a Christian ascetic.
If the movie’s ending seems hastily done it’s because it was. Producer Gustavo Alatriste ran out of money after five reels. The movie is thus only 45 minutes long, but most viewers (myself included) think it’s still cohesively lucid.
Buñuel was a well known atheist but he was fascinated with religious themes. My own personal interpretation of the movie is that temptation is unavoidable. It’s a daily battle whether it’s fought in a NYC nightclub surrounded by writhing, beautiful, young bodies or seeking solitude and poverty in the middle of a desert it remains inescapable.
Simon of the Desert is not for everyone, but if you love gorgeous cinematography, surrealist story lines, and Luis Buñuel than this movie is right up your alley. I know I enjoyed it.
To order Simon of the Desert on DVD from AMAZON click here.
To order from Amazon Canada click here.