Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s movie is something of a quandary for me. I sometimes go pretty far afield, the result of picking my movies nearly at random from the giant list. This one falls firmly in the ‘oh god how do I write about something like that‘ category. So hopefully you’ll forgive the uncertain tone, the number of questions versus the number of answers. After writing this, I went and looked at a whole array of pieces on the movie, and found that outside of the facts no two people seemed to have the same interpretation. So I feel, at least, that my reaction to it is valid and that I likely didn’t miss something that would make it all perfectly clear.
Simon of the Desert (1965)
A man stands upon a pillar in the desert. His name is Simon (Claudio Brook), and he is introduced as an ascetic famous to the people who live in the surrounding lands. As the movie opens, he has stood upon his pillar for six years, six weeks, and six days, a number that would seem a bit on the nose if it wasn’t coming from surrealist director Luis Buñuel. On this day, Simon has received a gift from a wealthy benefactor: a taller, grander pillar. Simon descends among the people, trying to avoid their worship and ardor, to get back up on the perch to continue his supposedly edifying deprivations.
Simon of the Desert is the last Mexican film Buñuel would make, suffering from a lack of funding that meant the film never shot more than five reels and thus spools out its parable of faith and temptation in a scant 45 minutes. But in that amount of time, Buñuel manages to tackle the dichotomies of faith and religion with a humorous touch that belies the self-seriousness of its subject. I suppose, for the record, that I should point out that Buñuel was himself an atheist, but the reality is that the movie seems far more in tune with the intentions and emotions of the believers than many outright religious films (certainly most made today), so I will try to remain fairly agnostic in my appraisal of his intent, as I’m fairly sure Buñuel did in the making of the movie.
From the outset the film shows an interest in the juxtaposition of the base and righteous, the refined and the profane, that plants its tongue firmly in cheek. Simon refuses to be given blessings as he switches pillars, saying he’s nothing more than a sinner who is lower than any of the others, yet he seemingly doesn’t hesitate to climb up the newer, higher pillars, as if grander status and higher elevation will bring him closer to heaven. Among those who visit him is a fussy young priest, robes immaculate despite the dirt and dust of the desert wilds; and a dwarf who seems the greatest outcast of this small community, with nothing more than a goat he seems to have a more-than-natural affection for to his name. The two of them are openly derisive of each other, but Simon treats them both with equal equanimity.
The problem is that Simon’s level-headed compassion seems completely blind to the realities of his situation. When the people gather around his pillar and ask for a miracle, he says he can only offer prayers. A father, who has had both hands cut off due to thieving that he has since repented for, has his hands restored when Simon prays for him. The crowd seems to barely notice, though, and Simon’s mystical goodwill is wasted on a man who immediately uses his new hands to slap his child for asking too many questions. Even the priests, having witnessed a bona fide miracle, seem to take Simon’s pious gifts for granted. “Did you see that thing with the hands?” one asks. The other just shrugs, turning the conversation to bread.
In the immortal words of Uncle Ben, with great faith comes greater temptation, and before long a new person shows up. She arrives to the wonder and befuddlement of the priests, who Simon mocks for being so easily tempted. The woman (Silvia Pinal), in a scandalous schoolgirl uniform, flashing gartered stockings under her short skirt, is quickly identified by Simon as Satan. His identification is greeted by the young woman turning into an old crone, who swears she will be back as she hobbles off into the desert to plot further temptations, Simon becoming the richest potential conquest.
Soon, in the movie’s only moment of outright comedy, a group of visiting priests stops to pray at the base of the pillar. One of the priests becomes possessed by Satan and begins cursing the church and blessing the demons. The priests respond with horror, counteracting each blasphemy with an opposite blessing. Well, that is, aside from some of the priests, who get so turned around in the rapid-fire exchange of blessings and curses that they end up repeating Satan’s blasphemies. In fact, Satan is so much more knowledgeable of their faith than they are that one priest turns to another mid-battle and asks what exactly it is they’re even blessing or condemning. The other priest, equally baffled, admits he has no idea.
Much of the movie is the interplay between Simon and this bewitching Satan, played with a freewheeling earnestness by Pinal, who manages to be bewitching at the same time she plays deeply on traditional catholic beliefs about sexuality and sin. She is the one glamorous thing in this ramshackle world, and as charmingly eccentric and sympathetic as Simon is, it’s her arrivals that become the bright spot of the movie. The second time she shows up, she’s dressed in white robes and a fake beard, carrying a lamb and pretending to be Jesus. Simon is almost thrown, but when he puts up resistance her patience breaks and she punts the lamb in frustration, throwing a temper tantrum befitting a toddler.
What’s interesting here is how petty the struggle over Simon’s soul seems to be. Simon has spent years atop this pillar, but it seems to have done little to help him. His deprivations have left him emaciated and filthy, the only thing he’s full of the doubts that gnawed at him and probably chased him up a pillar in the first place. At times it seems as indulgent as the petulant devil that pursues him and the populace who takes him for granted, a wealth of ritual that offers nothing more than a wall between him and the world of sin. Is what he does somehow harder than the priests and the people who live and struggle and suffer the day to day troubles? He seems sometimes to be better off, rewarded for his ‘suffering’ with food delivered to him every day and no obligations aside from standing there slowly going mad.
Eventually Satan comes a final time, this time not with offerings of temptation but with a final, powerful demand. She starts out effacing, mocking him with the fact that she is the only person around him who equals his faith in God. She is going to take him on a trip, she says, and suddenly a modern airliner swoops into frame and the two of them are gone. The movie cuts, abruptly, to a modern city and a 60s nightclub filled with people dancing to the music playing.
Simon and Satan, now made up in period-appropriate attire, sit and watch the teenagers writhe on the dance floor. Satan offers the knowledge that the teenagers are dancing something called “Radioactive Flesh,” and that it’ll be the last dance, bringing the apocalyptic symbolism that started the film around full circle with the apocalypse of the era, the nuclear inevitability that undoubtedly seemed as real as any faith in the mid-60s. He asks if he can leave, and Satan says that if he did he might find that he has been replaced by someone more pious in his absence. Simon, dejected, remains where he is as the film ends.
Simon, now with his hair trimmed and dressed in a sweater and turtleneck and carrying a pipe, is dressed like a parody of an intellectual from the time. What is most interesting with this coda (undoubtedly cobbled together due to the failure of funding) is how it recasts this rather timeless fable of faith in a modern context. Is the ascetic Simon of the desert the same person as the pretentious intellectual of the modern era? Is the comparison a cruel trick of Satan or Buñuel offering an equivalence argument relevant to modern audiences? If so, what does that say about Simon and his pursuit? Was his resolve for ultimate religious enlightenment through isolation as bad as the affectations and off-putting, presumptive superiority of the beatnik professor type he’s cast in at the end?
What is obvious is that Simon’s final settling into the chair in the nightclub is Buñuel’s harshest critique of his pursuits. If he was truly uninterested in status, if this was indeed a fully selfless act, he would get up and leave immediately, starting from the beginning and in disgrace with no qualms or hesitation. But he doesn’t, he simply sits, and allows Satan the final victory over him, not one of temptation but of pointing out the faults that were already there, papered over by piousness.
What Simon of the Desert offers is a polemic not specifically against religion, but against the man-made institutions that would apply rules and rituals, concepts of inequality, to what is at heart an intellectual pursuit. Simon’s faults are the faults of organized religion, but they could as easily be the faults of nearly any pursuit big or small, and that’s where Buñuel’s evenhandedness really shines. He seems honestly sympathetic to Simon’s pursuits, if not his methods, understanding that it is human nature to want to take one’s strongest convictions to the extreme (as an often controversial filmmaker, how could he not know that intimately?) but that it is in itself a temptation to be avoided.
And what seems almost more interesting than the movie and it’s interpretations is that it exists at all. I can’t imagine such a nuanced look at faith and religion, done by someone who doesn’t even necessarily share those beliefs, existing in today’s world. Nonbelievers make films that act as all-out attacks on anything remotely faith-based, and the quality of ‘religious’ movies is either grotesquely simplistic fare like Passion of the Christ or preaching to the choir, evangelical morality tales (if you ever want to spend a few hours laughing at movie trailers, go look up movies like Seven Days in Utopia, or Courageous, or the hilarious The Life Zone). Buñuel is often a difficult director to appreciate, but a movie like Simon of the Desert manages to be as complex and refreshingly smart now as it was then. There simply isn’t much attempt made at this kind of conversation done through cinema.