Judge Mike Rubino doesn't want to go to Hell's dance club.
Simon: What's this dance called?
Luis Buñuel has a justifiably revered reputation as one of the most important surrealist filmmakers in history. He got his start by collaborating with Salvador Dali on the 16-minute short Un Chien Andalou—you know, the movie where they slice that eye ball. His long career in surrealist filmmaking and religious rabble-rousing had its share of peaks and valleys, as he traveled from Spain to France to America to Mexico and back again. Simon of the Desert, his last Mexican film, is certainly one of the peaks.
Facts of the Case
Simon, an ascetic Christian, has spent six years, six months, and six days atop a pillar praying. His perhaps extreme methods of sacrifice and fasting haven't gone unnoticed, of course. Simon's brothers at the monastery visit him, pray around him, and bring him some lettuce and bread from time to time. But on this special day (6, 6, 6) he's rewarded by a local well-to-do, who gives him an even taller, fancier column to stand on. Simon gets a raise.
But with a bigger column comes bigger challenges. It's not long that Simon is visited by various incarnations of Satan, a possessed monk, and a roving torpedo coffin. Simon's faith and dedication to God is tested like never before…especially when the jet plane shows up.
Simon of the Desert is a short, but very effective, surrealistic look at religious devotion in early Christianity. Buñuel's career is marked with commentary on, and criticism of, organized religion. He was raised as a Roman Catholic, taught by Jesuits, but evolved into an atheist. His morality, however, is extremely Christian; he, himself, has said that his culture is still firmly rooted in his early days as a practicing Catholic. So it is with this in mind that Simon of the Desert arrives. The film is a critical take on clergy and organized religion, as well as a testament to Christian morality and sacrifice. It's also quite funny.
The film opens with a large group of monks and villagers marching to see Simon (Claudio Brook, The Exterminating Angel) who stands atop his modest pillar, arms outstretched. It doesn't really matter how the pillar got there, or what kind of man Simon was prior to his six and a half years of penance. His methods of worship of become an attraction to many, including a rich fellow who buys him an extravagant, Byzantine pillar that's three times the size of his old one (it even has a roped-in platform at the top; it's fancy). From this new, higher, vantage, Simon preaches to his followers, who seem to view him more as a novelty than a true inspiration. Simon even heals a man who lost both of his hands, and the first thing the man does with his new mitts is smack his daughter over the head. The audience is left to wonder if all this is really worth it; or if Simon wouldn't be better served actually living his life.
There is no doubt in Buñuel's film as to the existence of God. The character of Simon isn't left wondering, even though God is silent. Instead, he is visited by Satan, who shows up in plenty of different forms with hopes of fooling Simon. Here, Buñuel employs plenty of surrealistic anachronism, as Satan (Silvia Pinal, Viridiana) shows up dressed as a flirtatious school girl and then as a lamb-punting Jesus. Eventually, as the film reaches towards its climax, she shows up riding in a coffin that travels across the ground like a torpedo. Buñuel is reserved in how he presents all of this, allowing the absurdity of it all to play out as realistically as possible. The same could be said of the possessed monk, who undergoes a mini-exorcism in one of the more intense scenes from the film.
If there's one thing to be said of Simon, it's that for all the excellent pacing and storytelling that's there, it falters at the end. This isn't necessarily Buñuel's fault, you see; the movie is technically unfinished due to funding problems. So rather than resolve the story of Simon in any natural way, Satan instead transports him to a 1960s dance club brimming with hipsters and shoulder-shakers. The transition is excellent (a passing jet plane acts as the actual time traveling device), but the actual final scene feels a tad rushed and surreal for the sake of surreal. There is meaning to be mined from the twist—perhaps he's implying that the culture of the '60s was far from anything in Simon's pious times, or that Hell was filled with ridiculous dancing—but I can't help but feel that there would have been a better, stronger ending if Buñuel hadn't run out of money.
Despite the weak ending, and supposed lack of a budget, the film looks great. Buñuel's black and white photography, thanks to the excellent cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, is precisely framed and lit. It would be quite easy for a film about a guy standing on a pillar to feel static, but Buñuel employs plenty of pans, tracking shots, and aerials that give Simon aesthetic energy. I have to also give credit to Criterion for remastering the film the best they could. There is still plenty of grain, scratches, and flickering, but the film looks and sounds great for what it is.
Included on the disc is a hefty documentary called A Mexican Buñuel, which takes a look at the director's work while living in Mexico. The doc is from 1997, and features a great deal of information about Buñuel's life, his films, and his philosophies. The documentary is actually longer than the feature, and acts as a great companion piece to the film. There is also a new interview with actress Silvia Pinal. It's quite surprising to hear her talk about how Simon was supposed to be part of a three-episode film which would have featured segments by other directors (including Fellini); but the entire project essentially fell apart because she wanted to star in all three episodes. As always, a well-designed booklet accompanies the release. It features an essay on the film and Buñuel's religious philosophies by critic Michael Wood, as well as an interview about Simon with Buñuel from the 1970s.
Simon of the Desert is an excellent example of a mature and tempered use of surrealism in film. Buñuel's story, based on the very real St. Simeon Stylites, is an efficient satire that speaks both to skeptics and believers. Criterion has done an excellent job preserving the film, and paired it up with some worthwhile special features. The ending may feel a bit out of place, but taken for what it is, this film is a great surrealistic alternative for folks queasy about sliced eye balls.
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