Christianity gets another poke in the eye from Luis Bunuel, this time with a 45-minute feature about a 5th-century ascetic who has spent six years atop a column in the desert. If Simon (Claudio Brook) isn’t depicted as a complete clown, he’s certainly used to mock what Bunuel sees as the hypocrisy and preposterousness of religious faith.
Indeed, Simon is actually something of a laudable figure – if you can get over the insanity of standing on a column for this long (the story is based on a Syrian saint said to have done so for more than 30 years). Dedicated to his monastic pledge, refusing to be distracted by even the most basic needs, Simon has conviction, if nothing else (it helps that Brook plays him straight). He may be a bit harsh to a new acolyte, telling him to leave the monastery until he’s able to grow a beard, but he does show a certain humility, even as crowds gather to hear his words. He cares for them as much as he cares for bread. As the bedraggled Simon is framed against the expansive sky (the movie was shot in Bunuel’s adopted home of Mexico), it’s hard not to detect a minor note of admiration.
As the bedraggled Simon is framed against the expansive sky, it’s hard not to detect a minor note of admiration.
It’s in the circus that surrounds Simon where we really see Bunuel’s dark wit at play – emphasized by his acute awareness of the power of a single image. To honor Simon’s asceticism, a rich family erects a taller, fancier column for him to stand upon. A group of priests seek to reward him with a comfortable life in the priesthood. A local whose hands have been chopped off for stealing begs Simon to heal him, which he does. The healed man responds by giving his child a rough shove.
Still, Simon persists, even in the face of appearances by the devil herself (Silvia Pinal), once in the guise of a young girl showing off her “innocent legs” and another time as a well-manicured Jesus Christ. When the Devil is refused by Simon this last time, she gives the white lamb she’s carrying a swift kick. Blasphemy! (At least for PETA.)
Simon of the Desert is a fairly straightforward drama for Bunuel, the noted surrealist, save for this shape-shifting Satan and an eerie shot of a coffin racing through the desert of its own power. Things don’t really get bizarre until the ending, when Simon is transported from his ancient desert to a modern nightclub, where he and Satan share a table and watch the teens on the dance floor. The dance is called “Radioactive Flesh,” she tells him. Simon just longs for his column as the kids grind away.