Sometimes, when a director makes the film that summarizes the concerns he or she has previously dealt with in earlier work, it’s not a particularly successful film. I’m thinking here of films like Scorsese’s Casino – which is a much less successful film than Goodfellas, or even Wolf Of Wall Street, in paradoxically blurring the lines between corruption and commerce – or David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which presents pop-cultural distortions of subjective reality that were far better thought out in Videodrome. As admirable as both of those films were, there’s a feeling of repetition, of specific ideas not necessarily fleshed-out in the earlier films that are nonetheless better served by their ambiguity than their re-examination.
And so it is with Luis Buñuel’s Simon Of The Desert (Simón Del Desierto) (Mexico, 1965), a crisply episodic survey of Buñuel’s doting disdain for Catholicism, Christianity and religious fervor in general. Like his earlier Nazarin, Buñuel can’t help but give grudging but honest respect to the single-mindedness of his protagonist, the 4th century Syrian devotee Simon Stylites (Buñuel regular Claudio Brook). Simon was eventually canonized for his 37-year residence atop a pillar in the desert, about 1 meter square – locals would climb a ladder to bring him food and water, which he accepted coyly. Most of the time he would pray in solitude, or, when small crowds did gather, he would preach to them, even though, early in the film, he demurs an offer to be ordained as a priest – “I am an unworthy sinner.”
The film is then a series of individual encounters between Simon and his various followers and visitors: regally bedecked clerics, modest acolytes, his forlorn mother (keeping a Mary-like vigil), various local peasants, and, inevitably, the Devil itself, in the form of another Buñuel favorite, the fetching Mexican actress Silvia Pinal. In some cases, Simon’s devotion seems to be wasted – a thief’s chopped off hands are miraculously restored through Simon’s prayers, and the first thing the man does with them is slap his young daughter upside her head. Other times Simon’s own standards translate to a series of pointless recommendations for his Christian peers – he advises a young monk to grow a beard, not to bathe, and parade his poverty. “Man is the most despicable of your creatures, Lord!” he laments, but does man not measure up to God’s standards, or Simon’s?
The Devil’s first appearance is a silent one – she simply walks across the frame carrying a jug of water on her shoulder. Simon notes that the woman is one-eyed – when a young monk corrects him (she clearly has the normal two), Simon upbraids the young man’s observation as immodest ogling. Her second appearance is as a pinafore-wearing schoolgirl, sing-songing a derisive little ditty about Simon while exposing her legs and breasts. This direct approach proves to be counterproductive, and she regroups. Next she possesses one of the elder clerics, who spouts a series of blasphemies that even the bishops aren’t familiar with. (“What is apocastasy?” one asks the other – the reply is a puzzled shrug.) The other elders haul him off, but Simon’s not worried about him – he wants the boy with no beard thrown out of the monastery, and the elders comply with this as well. The dejected boy, now homeless, must rely on his acquaintance with a peasant dwarf with an unhealthy attraction towards his goat. The Devil’s next appearance is as Christ the Shepherd, and initially Simon believes this ruse. But the Devil can’t help herself, imploring him to come down from the pillar to indulge in the revels of the flesh. It’s another failure – Simon 3, Devil 0. But this visit has weakened Simon’s resolve, and, as penance, he resolves to only stand on one foot. He’s starting to forget the ends of prayers, and absent-mindedly starts blessing bugs and bits of lettuce he picks out of his teeth. For her final visit, she arrives in a gliding coffin, likes a Bugs Bunny tunnel racing across the sand, and simply declares that they’re leaving. “Between you and me, there are only few differences. As you, I believe in Almighty God, because I enjoyed His presence.” Where they go and how they get there I’ll leave to you to discover.
Like Father Nazario in Nazarin, Simon has all the right intentions, but that which he thinks is bringing him closer to God is the very thing that removes him from the rest of his fellow humanity. He thinks he’s setting an example, but his example is the very thing that distances his fellow humans from God, or, at least, the dogmatic organized-religious God. The Devil’s strategy doesn’t seem very committed or persistent, but she knows that Simon is unwittingly doing a lot of her work for her already. This is Buñuel’s frequent point – creating a worthwhile, ethical life for oneself in the empirical, quotidian world is hard enough without all of these judgmental snobs constantly telling you that you’re doing it all wrong, and that you should deny yourself the small pleasures that you’ve come up with on your own for some ephemeral bigger reward after death.
It’s a likable, watchable, amusing and instructive film, but it plays more like a list of lessons than a real-world narrative artfully tilted by Buñuel’s surreal touches. And problems with producer Gustavo Alatriste resulted in a very abrupt ending – they just flat-out ran out of money. It’s definitely worth seeing – many declare this to be their favorite Buñuel, based on the clarity of the message and the efficient 45-minute running time – but it’s admittedly not one of my favorites. Luckily, there’s a slew of consecutive masterpieces on the way.