You can always count on an atheist for a relatively pious style. While Luis Buñuel was undoubtedly an intransigent non-believer, it seems right to distinguish his religious films, such as Nazarin (1959), The Milky Way (1969) or, in this new Criterion release Simon of the Desert, not only because of their spiritual subject matter, but also because even their most blasphemous images emit a kind of otherworldly mystical charge that has only partial roots in surrealism.
Actually, there was something nearly religious, certainly codified, about Surrealism itself as a movement, something refined, almost chaste in its sense of moral allegiance. Despite denouncing bourgeois convention, Andre Breton, their self-proclaimed leader, was a rather tight-lipped homophobic misogynist, while Buñuel’s one-time collaborator Salvador Dali proved, with his latter-day popularity, a capitalist of the highest, freakiest order.
While Buñuel never lost his edge—in fact, his later films are even more merciless than the now academic, canonical Un chien andalou (1929)—it is not surprising to find out, in the informative documentary included here, A Mexican Bunuel, that the director was a “sexual puritan…of monastic habits” with a rather stringent morality. Even his bedroom, as seen in the documentary, was ascetically spare: a bed, a night table, a lamp, a desk.
Someone as funny as Buñuel would have to have such scrupulousness, as well as a strenuous set of convictions from which to attack. It’s the difference between a born atheist and someone who comes to non-belief from a life of liturgy, so to speak. Maybe it wasn’t necessary for Buñuel to have been steeped in Catholicism in his youth, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Simon of the Desert bears the unmistakable imprint of a one-time insider. The film is a short, allegorical fable about a man, loosely based on the 16th century Saint Simeon Stylites, who does penance by living atop a 20-foot column. While up there, he is beset and tried by everyone from sacrilegious monks who say things like, “…enough of these spiritual shenanigans” to unimpressed peasants, including a thief with chopped-off hands who, after Simon miraculously restores him, smacks his daughter first thing.
Though apparently the film’s brevity was a result of finance problems, the 45-minute running time makes for a more potent farcical construction, quick and compact, with gag upon gag piling up toward a raucous rock ‘n’ roll ending.
Claudio Brook, as Simon, is a wonderful comic actor with a face that at times resembles SCTV’s Joe Flaherty in old man make-up, and other times a young Max Von Sydow. His expressive puppy-dog eyes pass from beseeching world-weariness to spiritual bewilderment to a decidedly misanthropic impatience, as with the hopping, skipping young novice whose naïve piety only annoys Simon.
The absurd futility of Simon’s enterprise is continually emphasized: he forgets his prayers, or interrupts his lamentations and blessings with pious wisecracks like, “Besides being a spiritual exercise, blessings are good fun too.” He prays with one eye open, figuratively and literally, rarely giving himself over entirely to God.
In some ways, Buñuel is a funnier, atheistic Robert Bresson. Both directors have essentially misanthropic perspectives that focus more on man’s spiritual inadequacies over God’s. Both men also push for a kind of unconventional enlightenment, Bresson through flat, obscure forms, Buñuel through humor and disassociation. Simon of the Desert has the confounding, irrational quality of a Zen riddle or Christian parable, a surrealistic koan whose abrupt dissociations burst upon one with a revelation that is comic and secular, to be sure, but revelatory nonetheless.
Thus, while shots scanning Simon’s outstretched arms may be mocking, they are also, in their way, transcendent. In fact there is a soaring, levitating fluidity in much of the camerawork and photography. Legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa gets the most out of the spare graphic elements of desert, sky and column, and there are many truly impressive sweeping crane shots, with pronounced high and low-angles rendering the great empty spaces dry and airy. Often, the camera feels like an invisible presence hovering around Simon, either as an encouraging angel or a persistent, motile spirit denying him the solitude he seeks.
Yet the source of Simon’s greatest temptation is a female devil, played with girlish insidiousness by Viridiana‘s Silvia Pinal. Her Devil attempts to lure Simon down through increasingly disturbing disguises: a classical jug-carrying goddess with dirty hairy hands; a little girl in a sailor suit, flashing Simon her breasts; a bearded shepherd kicking a proverbial lamb; and finally, a shaggy-haired Dracula in a self-cruising coffin who transports Simon, via magic and jet plane, to a 1960’s disco. There we find the duo transformed into existentialist hipsters, the devil in a mini-skirt, and Simon looking glum with a shag-cut, a pipe and a sweater: medieval ascetic as alienated party-pooper.
Apparently Buñuel was more on the side of the saint. In A Mexican Buñuel, we learn of the dialectic relationship between an all-night Don Juan screenwriter and early bird puritan Buñuel. At the end of Simon of the Desert, it is Simon who wishes to go home, more out of boredom than any strict religious resistance, while the Devil wants to stay and dance the “final dance”, fittingly called “Radioactive Flesh”. Buñuel, it seems, always knew the slight, yet perilous distinction between self-denial and self-indulgence.
Extras include the excellent 1997 documentary mentioned above, a mildly revealing interview with the film’s devil, Silvia Pinal, and a fine booklet with an essay by Michael Wood and a 1970’s interview with Buñuel.