Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto, 1965) was my first Luis Buñuel film. I didn’t mean to start here, but one night my wife was working on something and, looking for something brief but presumably good, I saw that this movie was only 45 minutes. I’d been curious about Buñuel for some time, so this seemed a great place to start. If you are also curious about Buñuel, after watching this and several others now, I still think Simon of the Desert is a great place to get a sense of the director’s dark comedy and spontaneity.
The movie begins by showing us Simon (Claudio Brook) on top of a pedestal that sits on top of a column. Right away Buñuel introduces some ironic comedy: a rich man, full of thanks, has commissioned a nicer column a few dozen yards away, and today is the day Simon will descend (after 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days — hard to miss that reference), walk on the earth for a few moments, and then ascend the new column, which I guess will provide a more fulfilling state of self-deprivation — or, I mean, allow Simon to be even closer to God (I’m not nearly so flippant about religion, being religious myself, but that’s the tone Buñuel strikes here; and, after all, being religious doesn’t prevent me from seeing how silly (or horrific) some can be when it comes to religion).
Anyway, here is Simon enjoying a quick blessing before going across to his taller tower.
Once on top of the new column, the crowd that has gathered for the event hopes that they will witness a miracle. Sure enough, a miracle happens — a remarkable one — and the people, satisfied but not inspired, wander away, the miracle even giving a man the means to strike his own child as they go back to work.
Simon himself is both admirable and completely unlikable. On the one hand, his goal of getting closer to God by neglecting the physical world is genuine, no matter how we may see such a task. He really doesn’t seem to be doing this as a show. On the other hand, his mother has built a small shack below the column so she can watch him, but he tells her he doesn’t even think of her: she cannot come between him and the Lord. He’s dedicated and endures many pains, yet he’s self-righteous and his self-deprivation doesn’t really do anything for anyone. For him, I guess, that is far from the point.
Then comes some (more) Buñuelian strangeness. Simon is based on a fifth-century Syrian saint named Simon Stylites, who lived on a column for 39 years. Everything we’ve seen in this film so far seems to fit that time period (though in this desert setting with the tattered robes, I honestly couldn’t discern the fifth century from the 14th century — it just looks suitably pre-Rennaissance). But who is this young woman singing and dancing around in a very mid-twentieth-century sexy sailor dress? And why is she showing Simon her legs . . .
Oh, and now . . . well. Despite her allure — or because of it — Simon recognizes who she is: Satan (Silvia Pinal), come to try to tempt him from his self-denial. But he won’t descend or be distracted. In the screenshot below we see him not pausing a second from his self-deprivation, ignoring his mother as she crosses the ground to her little make-shift home:
I don’t want to give any more away, but one fairly quick look at the Criterion cover above should tell you that this movie doesn’t necessarily go where one might expect.
Part of the reason the film is so short and the ending so unexpected (well, the ending probably would have been unexpected anyway) is because Buñuel ran out of money and had to put it all together quickly. As sad as I am that Buñuel didn’t get to film the other scenes he’d planned, what we get here is still complete and coherent, and still packs a punch. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as effective and the film would have felt padded had money allowed the other scenes in.
I’m a bit sad that this is the last of his three movies he made with Silvia Pinal (I’ve reviewed Viridiana here and The Exterminating Angel here). All three, though, are so rewatchable it’s kind of like having twenty films. And, of course, there’s plenty more Buñuel.