BUNUEL’S SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms”-Luis Buñuel.

Simon of the Desert (1965) was Buñuel’s final Mexican film before moving to France. His Mexican period is often considered a repository of “anti-religious” films, although a more apt description might be “anti-ecclesiastical.”  This 45-minute pilgrimage is an incomplete work (due to haphazard funding), but even in its truncated state, it is a shockingly substantial work.

The ascetic fifteenth century Saint Simon Stylites () has spent his life atop a pillar in order to get closer to God. A wealthy patron has an even larger pillar built for the holy man and so, after six years, six months, and six days, Simon, reluctantly, comes down from atop his ivory tower, albeit briefly, to “move up” in the world. Detached irony abounds. As in Nazarin, Buñuel presents a religious figure as a fool, but a stubbornly determined fool to be identified with and admired, with detachment.

Still from Simon of the Desert (1965)Kurt Vonnegut once wrote an amusing observation about Christ and the Lazarus story. In his take on the narrative, Vonnegut imagined that, Lazarus’ resurrection, it was the recent corpse, not Christ, who became the celebrity with the crowd. Leave it for the masses to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. But, what Vonnegut was expressing was the inevitable chasm between prophet and audience.

Buñuel also emphasizes contrasts. Simon’s audience does not desire holiness. They crave tinseled parody, only because they do not know the difference. A handless man is resorted and immediately begins using his hand to slap an inquisitive child. Bunuel’s integrity and convictions astutely critique, not the faith itself, but the contemporary adherents to the faith, who, with their short attention spans, pedestrian tastes, poverties of intelligence and of aesthetics, are rendered consumers of spectacle as sacrament. Bunuel’s shift from the religious to the bourgeoisie was a natural development, seen flowering here.

The devil is, naturally, a woman, and Silvia Pinal agreeably fleshes her out.  She takes turns as a Catholic school girl, an androgynous messiah who performs a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction for the unfazed celibate, and finally as a mini-skirted Peter Pan, whisking Saint Wendy away from his Tower of Babel to a modern discotheque.

As with all of late Bunuel, he is no mere repeater of old narratives here. As St. Luis (and only a seasoned saint could be this irreverent), he spins a new parable, one that is organically textured and startling in its improvised finale. Bunuel was no hypocrite, and the unexpected loss of cash flow inspired a quixotic bleakness and an unequaled sense of purpose.

3 thoughts on “BUNUEL’S SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965)”

  1. The disco section in Simon of the Desert has always stuck in my mind for its weirdness.
    They used to show Bunuel season’s on the tv over here years ago…nothing finer than watching The Exterminating Angel, Belle de jJur and Simon of the Desert, etc every week…and the added bonus of having The Prisoner tv show on berfore it really made for some trippy evening pleasures!

  2. Replying to G. Smalley’s first comment – yes, exactly, so much Bunuel to consider! And this one is, frankly, just a little bit too mainstream. God means well but He doesn’t always think things through, so His miracles are frequently about as morally instructive as the feats of Uri Geller? The original series of “Star Trek” took similar themes much, much further time and time again.

    Obviously the fact that this film is literally half the film it was meant to be doesn’t help – Simon’s sudden transition from a medieval desert to a beatnik coffee bar for about a minute at the end of the film may be superficially “weird”, but if you bear in mind that this only happened because his gradual seduction couldn’t be shown due to lack of money, it’s basically a conventional linear narrative that happens to have a huge chunk missing.

    The entire point of the film – God and the Devil both exist, but God’s a bit stupid, therefore the Devil thoroughly deserves to win, and apparently does – is about as profound as owning a Black Sabbath album (and playing it backwards!). This is just the kind of knee-jerk atheism Bunuel still thought he was supposed to go in for in the early part of his career, even after he’d split with the official Surrealist Movement (trying to be friends with marginally talented but venomously jealous André Breton, one of the most obnoxiously egotistical human beings who ever existed yet somehow failed to start a war, was never easy). If you want to see the mature Bunuel taking the same idea much, much, further, just watch what the bishop does in “The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeousie”, a much more polished yet infinitely weirder film (which, by the way, doesn’t gain spurious Weirdness Points from not actually being finished). Or for general unfettered weirdness, “The Phantom Of LIberty”. Or, from an earlier phase of his career. “The Exterminating Angel”.

    Bluffer’s Tip: the crawling hand nightmare sequence in “The Exterminating Angel” was so good that a chastened Hollywood hired Bunuel to direct the special effects scenes in “The Beast With Five Fingers”, their own “expert” not being up to it. Bunuel isn’t credited, but that’s why the presence of the Hand causes totally surreal things to occur, such as the spontaneous snapping of guitar strings for no reason at all.

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