SIMON OF THE DESERT (Bunuel, 1965)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Feb 10, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long
(Today, Luis Buñuel turns 116 and I just can't wait for his next movie. In the meantime, I am re-posting my substantially revised and update review of perhaps my favorite Buñuel film, "Simon of the Desert." It might help to have twelve years of Catholic education to find this movie so damned funny -emphasis on the damned - but I don't think it's necessary.)
Is it a coincidence that many of the greatest religious films have been made by atheists and agnostics? Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964) is the definitive movie about Jesus Christ, a sympathetic, politically engaged portrait of an angry revolutionary. Non-believers Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke placed the human concept of a higher power at the core of “2001: A Space Odyssey” even though the film is devoid of mystical revelation, no matter what “ultimate trips” some of its chemically-enhanced viewers may have taken.
One of director Luis Buñuel's favorite quips was typically contradictory: “Thank God I’m still an atheist.” The quote is not only funny but provides one plausible reason that atheists make such good religious films: they tend to think about God all the time. After all, it’s hard not to be concerned with God in a world where geopolitics are dominated by people who fight in the name of their various invisible friends who never learned to play well together.
Buñuel made religion the central theme of many of his films including “Nazarin” (1959), “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964), “The Milky Way” (1969) and this 45-minute masterpiece “Simon of the Desert” (1965). There’s no way to dispute that Buñuel was critical, often outright mocking, of fervent religious belief but his critique was usually focused on clerics and their rigid teachings rather than the believers themselves.
He was particularly fascinated by the elaborate rules and rituals that govern organized religious practice, specifically the religion in which he was raised, Catholicism, and his surrealist sensibility enabled him to tease apart the physical signifiers from their metaphysical trappings. In “The Milky Way,” a priest lectures about transubstantiation (the belief that the Eucharist becomes the literal body of Jesus), prompting a perfectly logical yet apparently blasphemous question from one of his listeners: “Once you swallow, what becomes of the Christ?” Send that man straight to hell.
In “Simon of the Desert,” the title character (Claudio Brook) is a hermit who lives on top of a stone column (in the desert, in case you weren't sure). A cult gathers around him and pilgrims petition the holy man daily for favors; they don't so much hope for a miracle as expect one. When a double amputee is miraculously healed, he treats it with all the solemnity of waiting in line for government cheese: “OK, let’s go back home now.”
After Simon has spent six years, six months and six days on his column, the devil, in the form of a buxom Silvia Pinal, arrives to tempt him. He crosses himself but the devil flatly states, “Making gestures with your hands won’t help you this time.” “Making gestures with your hands” isn't futile because there is no God in this filmic universe; it's just a damn silly thing for a grown person to do. In fact, the miraculous is so commonplace in the movie, nobody can logically be an atheist. And I mean nobody. When Simon speaks of his abiding faith, the devil fires back, “I believe in God too!”
Buñuel has a lot of fun at Simon’s expense, but it’s not an entirely unsympathetic portrayal. It’s just that you can’t help but marvel at a person who lives on top of a column the same way you might gawk at a circus freak. There are so many questions you want to ask. Does he get bored? Do his feet get sore? How does he take care of, you know, business? Simon answers this one. Since he only eats lettuce, he’s just like a little bird now, so it’s not really that big of a problem.
Whether the devil has knocked him off balance or life atop a stone has finally become too yawn-o-lithic to bear, Simon quickly begins to deteriorate. Desperate to find something to bless, he turns his attention to a bug and then to a piece of lettuce. Even his prayers and sermons don’t make as much sense as they used to: “I’m beginning to realize that I don’t realize what I’m saying.” Perhaps that's the beginning of true wisdom.
As in “The Exterminating Angel” (1962), Buñuel creates an absurdist story out of quietly realistic shots. Surrealism is built “on realism” after all. Almost the entire film is set in the area around Simon’s column, and the film’s syntax is fairly standard even if the shot/reverse shots in this case look inherently weird when one of the people in the conversation is standing twenty feet above the other. The film offers its share of discordant images, including a coffin that skitters along the ground, and a bearded Silvia Pinal masquerading as Jesus, but it established a consistent sense of geography. Part of the surrealist mission was to “assault the eye” (as literally manifested in “Un chien andalou”) but Buñuel sticks to the basics here aside from a few jarring cuts, none more so than the one that leads us into the film’s final scene, a scene I guarantee that you are not expecting.
“Simon of the Desert” was the last film that Spanish-born Buñuel shot in Mexico, the country where he rejuvenated his career after a ten-year hiatus and would live most of the rest of his life. He made several commercial films to pay the bills, but his Mexican period produced some of his greatest works: “Los olvidados” (1950), “El” (1953), and “The Exterminating Angel” among them. Producer Gustavo Alatriste (Pinal’s husband) ran out of funding in the middle of the shoot, which forced Buñuel to eliminate many of his plans and produce this 45-minute cut. He certainly made a virtue of necessity and it would be difficult to imagine a better ending for the film. Then again we are talking about Luis Buñuel and when it comes to that kind of talent, you just have to have faith.
The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is pictureboxed as are many Criterion full-screen releases which means some viewers will see black bars around the edge of the image (like a picture frame.) The opening shots look a little scratched and worn, but the rest of the film looks so sharp and pristine you won't have many complaints, aside from hoping for a high-definition upgrade in the near future.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Not much to say here – solid, functional, not too complex. No complaints. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio.
The DVD includes a documentary about Buñuel’s years in Mexico titled, appropriately enough, “A Mexican Buñuel” (55 min.) It’s a solid documentary with plenty of information. However, be warned that it contains significant spoilers (as in the entire plot) for “Los olvidados” and minor spoilers for a few other films. A brief interview with Silvia Pinal (6 min.) is the only other feature.
The insert booklet features an essay by critic Michael Wood and an excerpted interview of Buñuel conducted by critics José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent between 1975 and 1977.
Every now and then I start to think that “Simon of the Desert” might be my favorite Buñuel film. Then I remember “The Exterminating Angel.” And “The Milky Way.” And 'The Phantom of Liberty.”
Thank God I don't have to pick a favorite Buñuel film.