Simon of the Desert: film of a saint dehumanised by his own self-righteous hypocrisy and pride

Luis Buñuel, “Simon of the Desert / Simón del Desierto” (1965)

Buñuel skewers again institutional religion and sanctimonious belief, this time in a satire based on the life of the 4th-century ascetic Simon Stylites who spent 25 years praying and meditating atop a pillar in a desert. Outwardly the saint (Claudio Brook) appears a genuinely humble and devout man but as the film progresses, his pride and self-righteousness prove to be his greatest downfall rather than any temptations offered by Satan (Silvia Pinal) who appears at least three times in different guises. Ostensibly Simon undertook his quest to be closer to God and find peace but subtle hints throughout the film, beginning with his transfer from one pillar to another paid for by a wealthy man, demonstrate a lack of genuine faith and a “holier than thou” self-pride: he neglects to acknowledge his mother and her willingness to suffer in the desert with him, he berates a novice monk for being clean and beardless and he complains about running out of insects and other creatures to bless. Satan comes to him as a sexy schoolgirl, God himself and finally as a guide to a different world which turns out to be our modern Western age. The film drops Simon and Satan, now a modish young woman, in the middle of a discotheque filled with teenagers jiving to a rock’n’roll band: Simon, now smoking and drinking alcohol, and looking like an ivory-tower intellectual who got blackmailed by a beautiful student into a date with her, gets bored and wants to leave but Satan tells him to wait right to the end when she and the others have finished dancing.

As the budget for the film ran out before its completion, Buñuel was forced to finish it quickly and abruptly, hence the completely unexpected climax and denouement in which Simon is transported 1,700 years into the future. I’m not sure though whether, if Buñuel had had more money, the intended ending would have been any better: the aim was to show how Simon’s determination to make himself suffer before God and his pride in undergoing more rigour than anyone else can stand undermine his humanity and resistance to Satan. I imagine the film would simply have piled on more examples of Simon undoing himself by his own actions, losing more of his humanity and purpose in life before he is reduced enough to succumb to Satan’s temptations. At the end of the film as it is, Simon finds he no longer has much in common with humanity and is farther away from God than what he thought himself to be, and that’s as it should be. Whether the final fall from grace should have taken place in a disco jumping with kids doing the latest dance while sax and guitars play around them is another thing: this scene reveals more about Buñuel’s prejudices towards teenage fads of his time than of Hell itself, and I rather feel Buñuel was unfair towards young kids in this respect when other, more genuinely trashy aspects of Western culture, including anything to do with religion and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, could have portrayed Hell in all its sordidness.

Other characters in the film, major and minor, illustrate Buñuel’s opinion of religious ritual, unthinking conformity and the sheer meanness that human nature can descend to. A thief without hands and his wife implore Simon for a miracle, Simon prays to God and the man suddenly finds his hands restored; instead of praising God and thanking Simon for the miracle, the man cuffs his son while the missus starts planning all the work hubby can now do around the house. Two nearby pilgrims refer to the miracle as a “trick” and various monks also treat this miracle and others Simon performs very lightly, even going so far as to suggest that Satan is responsible for putting food in Simon’s bag than Simon himself or somebody else. The only people in the film Buñuel has any pity or feeling for are Simon’s long-suffering mother, waiting patiently for some attention from her son, and a shepherd dwarf who has more good sense than everyone else in the movie combined.

While the plot and the style of the movie are uneven, at least Brook distinguishes himself by underacting and playing his character po-faced straight to the point where Simon becomes a figure of pity or ridicule while Pinal, clearly relishing her devilish role, slightly overdoes the sexiness and eats up the scenery whenever she appears. Buñuel hit on a real comedy duo in Brook and Pinal. Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is beautiful and the plot allows him to show off his skill in filming from different angles, emphasising spatial (and maybe psychological) distance between Simon and the people he interacts with. Surreal influences – a coffin sliding over the grass, for example – intrude into the film and the plot twist near the end doesn’t seem all that out of place.

Perhaps the movie didn’t turn out as Buñuel intended but “Simon of the Desert” is not too bad as it is; any longer and the film might have become repetitive and boring in its latter half. As the saying goes, less is more, and as Shakespeare once said, brevity is the soul of wit, and “Simon of the Desert” proves both right.

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