Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms”-Luis Buñuel.
Simon of the Desert (1965) was Buñuel’s final Mexican film before moving to France. His Mexican period is often considered a repository of “anti-religious” films, although a more apt description might be “anti-ecclesiastical.” This 45-minute pilgrimage is an incomplete work (due to haphazard funding), but even in its truncated state, it is a shockingly substantial work.
The ascetic fifteenth century Saint Simon Stylites (Claudio Brook) has spent his life atop a pillar in order to get closer to God. A wealthy patron has an even larger pillar built for the holy man and so, after six years, six months, and six days, Simon, reluctantly, comes down from atop his ivory tower, albeit briefly, to “move up” in the world. Detached irony abounds. As in Nazarin, Buñuel presents a religious figure as a fool, but a stubbornly determined fool to be identified with and admired, with detachment.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote an amusing observation about Christ and the Lazarus story. In his take on the narrative, Vonnegut imagined that, Lazarus’ resurrection, it was the recent corpse, not Christ, who became the celebrity with the crowd. Leave it for the masses to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. But, what Vonnegut was expressing was the inevitable chasm between prophet and audience.
Buñuel also emphasizes contrasts. Simon’s audience does not desire holiness. They crave tinseled parody only because they do not know the difference. A handless man is resorted and immediately begins using his hand to slap an inquisitive child. Bunuel’s integrity and convictions astutely critique, not the faith itself, but the contemporary adherents to the faith, who, with their short attention spans, pedestrian tastes, poverties of intelligence and of aesthetics, are rendered consumers of spectacle as sacrament. Bunuel’s shift from the religious to the bourgeoisie was a natural development, seen flowering here.
The devil is, naturally, a woman, and Silvia Pinal agreeably fleshes her out. She takes turns as a Catholic school girl, an androgynous messiah who performs a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction for the unfazed celibate, and finally as a mini-skirted Peter Pan, whisking Saint Wendy away from his Tower of Babel to a modern discotheque.
As with all of late Bunuel, he is no mere repeater of old narratives here. As St. Luis (and only a seasoned saint could be this irreverent), he spins a new parable, one that is organically textured and startling in its improvised finale. Bunuel was no hypocrite, and the unexpected loss of cash flow inspired a quixotic bleakness and an unequaled sense of purpose.