Luis Bunuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT is a short, but highly satisfying, surrealist parable about religious faith and morality, self-righteous intolerance, temptation, and corruption.
Simon (Claudio Brook), a religious ascetic with a long beard, has been standing on top of a pillar in the middle of the desert for six years, six months, and six days to emulate St. Simon Stylites. A group of peasants and priests gather around and present him with a new, taller pillar to stand on.
The crowd kisses his feet as he walks among them, but he dismisses his mother (Hortensia Santovena) when she approaches. A thief who had his hands chopped off asks Simon to perform a miracle and restore them, saying he has repented. Simon grants his wish, and the thief nonchalantly walks away with
his family and promptly smacks his child in the head with his new hand. When a beautiful woman walks by, Simon lectures a priest for looking at her and tells him not to pray near him anymore. He also chastises a monk who has brought him food for dressing too nicely. After Simon has a fantasy about
climbing down and running with his mother, a young schoolgirl with a hula hoop approaches him and flashes her legs and breasts. Simon realizes the girl is actually Satan when she sings a mocking song in which she says he sleeps with boys and that he's the hairiest man in the world. She pokes him
with a stick and when he prays to Jesus, she turns into a naked, withered old hag, and runs away.
A priest who falsely accuses Simon of hypocrisy after filling his bag with food is attacked by other priests and has a seizure. Later, Simon has a vision of Jesus with his flock of sheep, but it turns out to be Satan again, and she hits Simon in the head with a rock. Afterwards, Simon decides to
stand on one foot until Jesus comes to take him away, and he blesses a dwarf (Jesus Fernandez) and the pregnant goat that's his constant companion. Another priest tells Simon about current wars which are caused by ownership and takes Simon's bag and knock his ladder down. A coffin speeds across
the desert and stops at the pillar. Satan comes out and tells Simon she's taking him on a trip to see a Black Mass. A jet plane flies over them, and they're transported to a Manhattan discotheque where a crazed crowd of teenagers are dancing wildly to rock 'n' roll music. Simon and Satan sit
together, smoking and drinking, and when Simon tells her he's going back, she replies that there's a new tenant on his pillar and that he must remain here forever.
Bunuel had intended to make SIMON OF THE DESERT a full-length feature, but when his producer ran out of money, he had to stop shooting in the middle and quickly improvise the contemporary Manhattan rock 'n' roll ending which now comes as quite a shock, but in its own way, is quite perfect, like
everything else in the film. Despite its shortened form, it remains one of Bunuel's richest, funniest, and most entertaining films, continually offering surprises and delights as it shifts in tone from serious morality tale to blasphemous allegory to surrealist, scatological comedy. In short,
swift strokes, Bunuel brilliantly delineates Simon's state of mind and his physical predicament, subjecting his pious self-martyrdom to ridicule, yet oddly giving him dignity and stature as well. Claudio Brook is excellent as Simon, superbly registering the man's sense of imperiousness as well as
his foolishness, and Silvia Pinal is both sexy and hilarious as Satan, as she tries to tempt Simon down from that pillar to indulge himself.
The photography, by the great Gabriel Figeuroa, is also impressive, constantly soaring and swooping through the air to pick up Simon atop the pillar, composing striking images of the lone figure set against a backdrop of thick clouds and sky. As he had done in VIRIDIANA (1961), Bunuel equates
depravity and spiritual corruption with rock 'n' roll music in the finale, but does so in a detached, ironic way. SIMON OF THE DESERT may be a truncated work, but it won a special jury prize at the 1965 Venice Film Festival and is undoubtedly one of its creator's most bizarre and original films.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Luis Bunuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT is a short, but highly satisfying, surrealist parable about religious faith and morality, self-righteous intolerance, temptation, and corruption. Simon (Claudio Brook), a religious ascetic with a long beard, has been stan… (more)