It’s an easy first impulse to think of 1965’s surrealist black comedy Simon Of The Desert as another of Luis Buñuel’s infamous blasphemies, the tale of a holy fool who tries to honor God, but ultimately bows to the devil’s temptations. After all, Buñuel was a renowned non-believer (“Thank God I’m still an atheist,” he famously said) and a persistent critic of organized religion, and the compromises made by his Christ-like hero and his followers don’t dispute the point. Yet Buñuel’s point of view is more ambivalent than it appears, at least in the sense that he admires the hardcore asceticism of a man who devotes his life to God, even if that effort is rendered meaningless by earthly wickedness. Buñuel’s film features some outrageous sights—a jet plane that flies overhead, whisking the action from the 4th century to a ‘60s New York discotheque; the devil as breast-baring provocateur; a coffin that scuttles along the desert floor like a torpedo—but there’s an underlying austerity to it too, rooted in the disappointment of a reality that falls short of faith’s noblest intentions.
Inspired by the life of Saint Simeon Stylites, Simon Of The Desert stars Claudio Brook as the title character, an ascetic who spends his life atop a pillar to get closer to God. As the film opens, a wealthy benefactor has built an even taller column for him, so Simon steps off of his old pillar after six years, six months, and six days (which combine as the number of the beast, of course) and into a ceremony that doesn’t seem all that godly. His followers, such as they are, shrug off the miracles he performs; when he restores a thief’s chopped-off arms, for example, the man immediately uses them to strike his own child. Simon also faces a series of temptations by the devil, who in the luscious form of Silvia Pinal (Buñuel’s muse on Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel, too) appears as a naughty schoolgirl, a curly-haired male shepherd, and finally a Greenwich Village hipster in a miniskirt.
At a mere 45 minutes, Buñuel’s final film in Mexico—an exile that resulted in some of his best work, including 1950’s Los Olvidados—was cut well short of what he intended, though an interview with Pinal on the DVD suggests that the producers were hoping to bring Federico Fellini and/or Jules Dassin on board for an omnibus project. But there’s plenty to mull over in the compact running time, and the out-of-the-blue final sequence is made more effective by its jarring abruptness. At the center of all the mayhem, poor Simon never loses his serious look; he’s simultaneously a straight man and a tragic fool.
Key features: An hourlong 1997 documentary about Buñuel’s adventures in Mexico loses in useful information what it gains in pointless digressions and style. Better is a short, charming interview with Pinal, who credits Buñuel for making her career.