#460 Simon of the Desert
Simon of the Desert, together with Nazarin (1958) and Viridiana (1961), loosely formed an unofficial trilogy of faith/religion in the late period of Buñuel’s oeuvre. All major protagonists, each one was named in the film title, endured numerous arduous obstacles that put their faith in jeopardy. In the “feel-good” Catholic-favored films, the endurance would eventually turn into the shininess of humanity. But for Luis Buñuel, a well-known and self-claimed atheist, it’s the progress of stripping the hypocritical glamour and uncovering the human ugliness. The self-righteous exposure produced some foreseeable scandal as well as oppression from the conservative and unenlightened mind, most renowned in L’Age d’Or (1930), Los Olvidados (1950) and Viridiana.
After a long period of exile in Mexico, Buñuel finally obtained complete artistic freedom with the collaboration of producer Gustavo Alatriste, and Alatriste’s wife, the Mexican actress Silvia Pinal, starting from Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel (1962). Their third and last collaboration, Simon of the Desert, was cut short in production, from a originally planned feature film into a 45-minute story due to financial reason. Nonetheless, the film maintained an artistic integrity, itself acted like a swirling sand storm that could blow you, and the ascetic protagonist Simon (Claudio Brook), far away from the desert.
Throughout the 45 minutes, we witnessed the ingenious tricks from the devil, portrayed by the magnificent Silvia Pinal in several disguises; or earthy temptations from Simon’s fellow priest and followers, acted upon the piety believer Simon, who stand atop of a column and remain in asceticism. Just as Viridiana was inspired by a religious painting, Simon of the Desert was a reference from Simeon the Stylite, a fifth century Syrian hermit who achieved fame for living 37 years on top of a pillar. This kind of solitude penance would sound pretentious if it was done nowadays. Nevertheless, Buñuel viewed it as a futile but courageous act that, besides being religious, Simon could be the most innocent and unrealistic man.
At the start of the film, Simon was offered a taller, more extravagant pillar as a munificence from a philanthropist. He accepted this earthy present, showing even a saint in asceticism could not completely escape the materialistic boundary. A priest proclaimed Simon had been living on the smaller pillar for six years, six months and six days, a satanic number inserted by Buñuel here intentionally, exemplified the looming evilness that went unaware by everyone, including both the ignorant and the supposed religious ones.
Simon had “abandoned” his mother (Hortensia Santoveña) whom he even avoided embracing with, he deemed the love to his mother would be a hindrance to his love to God. I call it an indoctrination and selfish act. Yet occasionally his act was admirable. When a priest rehearsed an argument with Simon, Simon willingly discard any proclaimed possessions, an act that demonstrated anti-materialism, as well as a call back to his preceding exorcism on a possessed priest.
Even though Buñuel was a atheist, he may still consider miracles as conceivable. Nazarin was followed by two tenacious prostitutes who believed he could perform miracles; the guests could not leave the room after a dinner party in The Exterminating Angel was a sort of parodic miracle. Simon prayed for the restoration of the mutilated hands of a follower, however the resulted miracle went unappreciated by the crowd. The act of goodness was not as rewarding as we thought, sometimes it even have opposite effect, in Viridiana, the beggars repaid Viridiana’s act of kindness with a berserk orgy in her mansion, and an attempted rape.
In the heart of the Simon of the Desert, it is a battle between good and evil, between Simon and the devil. Silvia Pinal played the exact opposite character to the benevolent Viridiana. She acted like a childish schoolgirl in a sailor uniform and black stocking, and once again showing the recurring foot-fetishism in Buñuel’s films; she wore up a beard and dressed like a shepard with a heap of sheep; or lay down in a self-hovering coffin. Character-wise, the devil was much more intriguing than the deadpanned Simon, so as the undisciplined life.
The film came to an abrupt, though captivating ending. The devil took Simon across time and space into the modern world with airplane and skyscrapers, and landed in a dancing night club. Both were dressed in modern fashion, and Simon, obviously not enjoying the disco music, asked what song was playing. The devil answered “Radioactive flesh. The latest and final dance.” The flesh not only rotten, but now radioactive, a symbolic reference to the fear of atomic bomb and the apocalyptic nuke war. Simon was dragged into “hell”, the modernized world aka the place we are living in. Someone, another tenant, had already took Simon’s place at the top of the pillar. But who? Was Simon failed in resisting the temptation, and at the end evil won the war? Buñuel told us via the devil’s ambiguous last comment, she said Simon have to “stick it out till the end”. Believing in God or not, we have to endure and face the consequence, that’s our penance in the real world.
Criterion Release: 3/4