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In 1965's Simon of the Desert, Luis Buñuel distills his fascination with religion into a wickedly funny look at piety and temptation. Producer Gustavo Alatriste had given the expatriate Spanish director full freedom on his previous two pictures, the award winning and politically controversial Viridiana and the resolutely surreal The Exterminating Angel. Alatriste's one condition was that Buñuel provide starring roles for his wife, Mexican actress Silvia Pinal.
In a dusty desert, the saintly Simon (Claudio Brook) stands atop a stone pillar, seeking to purify his soul by physically removing himself from worldly things. Various monks attend to Simon, who is too humble to accept holy orders. Simon's first pillar is only about ten feet tall. A grateful merchant cured by Simon's prayers builds him a 25-footer, placing the bearded ascetic like a landmark under the clear skies. But the high perch cannot protect Simon from the temptations of Satan.
Bun˜uel's Simon is a disciple of Saint Simeon Stylites, an historical Syrian ascetic; holy men lecturing from atop pillars were apparently not a rare thing in ancient times. Buñuel doesn't mock the scriptures or deny Simon's sincerity, but instead illustrates the pious Simon's defenselessness in our corrupt world. Rituals and politics preoccupy the local monks; when Simon performs authentic miracles, one grumbles that the spiritual nonsense is getting out of hand. In an argument over the doctrinal terms anastasis and hypostasis, one monk asks, "What on earth is the apocatastasis?", and his colleague hasn't a clue. Simon sends away a carefree young monk who skips along instead of walks. Another monk distracts Simon by telling him that his faith is irrelevant, because humanity is too selfish and materialistic to appreciate it.
The general public is even more distracting. Simon's mother lives in a tent at the bottom of the pillar, forcing him to stand looking the other way to concentrate on his prayers. A dwarf goatherd (who appears to be too familiar with his goats) persists in giving Simon unwanted bread and milk, taking his mind off his fasting. A crowd gathers in hopes of seeing a miracle, but is unimpressed when Simon succeeds. Among them is a handless thief who begs to be cured so that he can feed his family. Although Simon's prayers indeed make the man whole again, he's neither grateful nor enlightened. The thief's first act is to slap one of his daughters.
Simon seeks hardship and self-denial, and finds peace only in solitude. Unfortunately, the devil (Silvia Pinal) tempts him, appearing in different forms, mostly female. We first see Satan as a beautiful water bearer (with demonic hands) who breaks the holy concentration of some monks. Satan then manifests himself as a little girl in a sailor suit, taunting Simon with a perverse song and showing him her "innocent" legs and breasts.
Simon stands firm, but the devil returns disguised as God, with golden locks and a beard. After dealing with possessed monks and the devil's taunting tongue, Simon seems fated to become a combination tormented martyr and burlesque straight man. The irony is that the devil, having lived by God's side, is hard proof that God exists. "As for God's son," says Satan, "I could tell you a few things about him."
For his final appearance, the devil arrives in a coffin that moves by itself, reminding us of a scene in Murnau's silent Nosferatu. This time "she" infers that Simon will be transported from his tower to some kind of Hell, and that he has no choice in the matter.
(Spoiler) In the controversial ending, Buñuel whisks Simon fifteen centuries into the future, to a Manhattan discothèque hopping with guitar music and dancers. Wearing a turtleneck and a neatly trimmed beard, Simon stares dejectedly while the devil continues to give him grief. She tells Simon that the song is called "Radioactive Flesh" and he must listen to it until "the end" -- of time? The focus of much critical analysis, the abrupt conclusion is simply Buñuel's cosmic joke on the banality of sin. It also expresses the director's personal hatred of rock 'n' roll music, which he considered an abomination. Just the same, Buñuel's disco scene is considerably better than anything in contemporary Hollywood pictures!
At only 45 minutes, the show is neither a short subject nor a full feature, and its exhibition opportunities have been limited. The producer's money ran out before Buñuel could film a number of scenes, leaving Simon of the Desert an almost pure surreal statement. Gabriel Figueroa's stark cinematography avoids pictorial effects but uses a gliding camera crane to animate what is basically a static situation. Star Claudio Brook acted both in Mexico and Hollywood, appearing in several Buñuel pictures as well as later surreal exotica like Juan López Moctezuma's The Mansion of Madness. Silvia Pinal was a Mexican star before Buñuel but became internationally known through his movies.
The Criterion Collection's disc of Simon of the Desert is a nearly perfect transfer of a fine B&W element that shows only a hint of a scratch on the very first scene. It's a far cry from the dim 16mm copies once screened in film classes. Although the main titles would seem balanced for 1.66:1, the full frame presentation is not objectionable.
Criterion producer Kim Hendrickson has gathered excellent extras to accompany the brief feature. Still proud of her association with the famous director, Silvia Pinal reminisces about the filming in a new interview. She admits that, in her role as Satan, she indeed kicked that tiny lamb. The fat insert booklet holds an insightful essay by Michael Wood and an interview with Luis Buñuel from the 1970s.
The hour-long 1997 documentary A Mexican Buñuel is an excellent examination of the director's rich middle career in Mexico. Filmmaker Emilio Maillé visits the field that Buñuel rented for Simon of the Desert and finds one of the original pillars still in place. Rare film clips accompany interviews with actors, screenwriters, producers and Buñuel's wife. We're also shown an unused alternate "happy" ending for Los Olvidados that would have seen service had the film not won awards overseas. Buñuel is one of those artists who becomes more interesting as we study him. This documentary reveals new surprises about the director and his fascinating films.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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