Directed by: Luis Buñuel.
Written by: Luis Buñuel & Julio Alejandro.
Starring: Claudio Brook (Simón), Silvia Pinal (The Devil), Enrique Álvarez Félix (Brother Matías), Hortensia Santoveña (The Mother), Francisco Reiguera (The Devil as an Old Witch), Luis Aceves Castañeda (Priest), Antonio Bravo (Priest), Enrique del Castillo (The Mutilated One).
Luis Bunuel was an atheist, who nevertheless spent much of his career making films about God and religion. For the most part, his films mock organized religion – in particular the Catholic Church – and the true believers, but he has made some films that are surprisingly sympathetic to the people who truly believe in God. Take for instance Nazarin (1958), which is about a simple man who wants to live his life according to simple, Christian principles – only to have those around him make that impossible. His 1965 short film – which wasn’t a short film by design, but because the producer ran out of money, forcing a hasty resolution to the movie after only 46 minutes – is not quite as sympathetic to its main character as Nazarin, but it isn’t as merciless as some Bunuel films could be either. If anything, Bunuel seems to pity poor Simon, and attacks his followers and the priests far more than the Holy fool himself.
When the film opens, we learn that Simon (Claudio Brook) has spent six years, six months and six days on top of a 10 foot high pillar – a sacrifice he has made willingly to show his devotion to God (if anyone realizes the time spent there is 666, the sign of the Devil, they don’t mention it). Now, because of a “wealthy benefactor”, Simon is being promoted – they’ve built him a 25 foot pillar to stand on. Unfortunately for Simon, no one will leave him alone. The crippled and deformed make pilgrimages to him to try and be healed – and even when Simon does perform a miracle – giving a thief back his hands – they don’t seem overly grateful to him. The priests are even worse, seeing Simon as a threat to their own practice of religion – after all, his sacrifice makes theirs look small by comparison – and he doesn’t ask for any money either.
Meanwhile, the Devil, in the form of the gorgeous Silvia Pinal, arrives and tries repeatedly to tempt Simon down off his pillar. The Devil takes on many forms to try and accomplish her goal. Eventually The Devil will give up trying to tempt Simon down, and just transport him from his desert in the 4th Century, to modern day New York, where she places him in the middle of a nightclub, full of dancing young people. If this is a vision of hell, than as Pauline Kael noted, it’s a rather pale one. But perhaps it’s just meant to represent Simon’s idea of hell. No longer can he simply cut himself off from humanity, and stand atop a pillar by himself, with people worshipping him. Simon looks even more ridiculous in that nightclub than he did on top of that pillar.
So, what finally, are we to make of Simon? His decision to stand on a pillar as a form of sacrifice to God is both crazy, and more than a little admirable. After all, don’t we normally admire someone who puts their principles and beliefs above all other things – including worldly goods? But therein lies the problem for Simon. Is it really that admirable to deny your own life in the service of God? Isn’t it somewhat disrespectful to God to waste the life he has given you, simply standing on a pillar?
If Simon of the Desert isn’t one of Bunuel’s best films – at least to my eyes – it has more to do with the strength of his other films than weaknesses in this one. When you think of films like Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, Belle de Jour or Tristana, than Simon of the Desert doesn’t quite seem at the same level. Would it be had Bunuel been able to make the full film he wanted to? Perhaps, but I think although Simon of the Desert is “incomplete” as it is missing scenes Bunuel wanted to film, as a film unto itself, it is a coherent whole. It may not be Bunuel’s finest film, but it’s still fascinating, funny and quite serious about its subject. Only Bunuel could make a film like this.