• Simon of the Desert:
    Damned If You Do . . .

    By Michael Wood


    A good friend of Luis Buñuel’s suggested in conversation that the director was likely to be damned twice: once for being an atheist, and once for joking about it on his deathbed. The friend, a priest, certainly knew what he was talking about, but I don’t believe he really thought Buñuel would be damned. God can’t ultimately condemn serious atheists. They pay far more attention to him than halfhearted believers do, and they help to keep him in business. On the soundtrack of Buñuel’s film Nazarín (1959), we hear a barrel organ playing an old song called “Dios nunca muere” (God Never Dies). The song in itself is a bit of popular piety, an assertion of enduring faith. In Buñuel’s movie, it is an ironic tribute to the director’s everlasting antagonist, a correction of Nietzsche’s premature announcement of God’s death. And when Buñuel says, as he frequently and famously did, “Thank God I’m still an atheist,” the remark is not only a witty paradox, it is a form of courtesy. Why wouldn’t an atheist want to show gratitude to the nonexistent deity who never lets him down?

    Simon of the Desert (1965) was the last film Buñuel made in Mexico, the last one in which he used Mexican actors, and most significantly the last one on which he worked with the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Buñuel got all kinds of sharp, ironic effects from glossy color photography in the six films, five French and one Spanish, he went on to direct before he died, but there is a purity and grace in Figueroa’s images that is unequaled in Buñuel’s body of work. Writing enthusiastically of Simon of the Desert, Pauline Kael suggests Buñuel’s movies “have a thinner texture that begins to become a new kind of integrity, and they affect us as fables.” She is thinking of his indifference to the large emotions directors usually want their actors to go for, but we could also consider Figueroa’s contribution to this effect. His images are as much about the desert as about Simon, and we can almost see the thinness of the air.

    The film tells the story of the miracles and temptations of a stylite, an ascetic who spent his life on top of a pillar. The model is Saint Simeon Stylites, but Buñuel reminds us that the early Christian world was full of such figures, and his character is “simply called Simon.” At the beginning of the film, Simon is about to move from a small pillar (ten feet or so high) to a much taller one (twenty-five feet or more), provided for him by a rich benefactor. Buñuel’s cool irony suggests that even in the realm of renunciation there are opportunities for professional advancement. The local bishop solemnly announces that Simon has spent six years, six months, and six days on his old pillar, and no one in the film seems to notice he is naming the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation. Buñuel, of course, thinks that any extreme attempt at holiness is likely to call up its opposite, and he makes sure the devil appears several times in the film. The devil takes the agreeable form of Silvia Pinal, the Mexican actress who played Viridiana in Buñuel’s 1961 film, and Pinal in turn takes several forms: a handsome woman carrying a water pitcher, a seductress dressed in a schoolgirlish sailor suit, an implausible young male shepherd, complete with fake curls and beard, a worldly woman with a fancy hairdo, a miniskirted dancer in a New York nightclub. The devil makes a point of the interest he/she shares with Simon: the hermit is looking for God’s approval, and the devil has known him for a long time. “I also believe in God the Father Almighty,” he/she says.

    The movie is incomplete because the producer, Gustavo Alatriste, ran out of money after five reels. If the ending—the sudden flight from the medieval desert to 1960s New York—looks hasty and improvised, this is because it was hasty and improvised. It has an interesting kick to it, though. We watch furiously shaking bodies on a densely crowded dance floor, an image of life as sheer convulsion, and the devil says this is the last dance of all. It is called “Radioactive Flesh.” The idea that hell is rock and roll, or vice versa, is pretty banal; Kael remarks that “what is presented to us as a vision of a mad, decaying world in its final orgy looks like a nice little platter party.” But Simon is not dancing, or even particularly preoccupied with the dance. He has a fringe now instead of his wild and woolly hair, a black polo-neck sweater, and a pipe. He looks like a man disguised as a French intellectual, a fraud now rather than a saintly fool—and it’s clear that the modern difficulty for the hermit is finding anything resembling moral solitude in a crowd. In comparison, a literal pillar in the desert looks like a dusty luxury.

    Buñuel had other adventures in mind for the middle of the movie—“a snow scene,” he said in his memoirs, “pilgrimages, and a visit from the emperor of Byzantium”—and of course it’s a pity he didn’t get to shoot them. But they would have filled out the film rather than altered its meaning or structure, and most viewers have felt that the forty-five minutes as we have them add up to a fully coherent work. The tone is very secure, dry, lucid, and yet curiously sympathetic to what is presented as a form of lunacy.

    Simon is played by Claudio Brook, who was the imposing butler in The Exterminating Angel (1962), and who brings a pained authenticity to a series of impossible gestures. Simon likes to bless the tiny creatures of the world, and at one point almost blesses a piece of lettuce he has just removed from between his teeth. Later he decides, because he has been taken in by Pinal in her guise as a shepherd, to stand on his pillar on one foot only: penance on top of penance. Nothing corrupts his unhappy persistence in his vocation, not even the antics of a local monk who becomes possessed and starts cursing every tenet of his religion. “Down with the sacred hypostasis!” the monk cries. “Death to the anastasis!” Then for a change: “Long live the apocatastasis!” And finally: “Death to Jesus Christ!” The other monks rise to the defense of doctrine. “Long live the sacred hypostasis,” they shout. “Viva!” There are two wonderful comic moments in this sequence. One of the younger monks gets confused in the alternation of mueras and vivas, and inadvertently starts to say, “Muera Jesu Cristo!” Another monk turns to another during the shouting and says, manifestly out of his depth, “What on earth is the apocatastasis?” The other monk shrugs, signifying either that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care or both. (For the record, apocatastasis is the doctrine that even devils will be saved, and it was declared anathema in AD 543.) Simon continues sturdily on his pillar and doesn’t seem unduly surprised even when, some time later, a self-propelled coffin appears on the desert floor, squealing like a tram as it heads for the base of the pillar, and looking, as Raymond Durgnat says, “like a cross between a lizard and a torpedo.” Simon’s unfailing seriousness is part of what makes the film so funny; but it also rescues him from mere ridicule. And what’s worse than ridiculous, in Buñuel’s view, is the religion that has taken this man’s life away from him, the service of that God who never dies. Simon is neither the first nor the last to abandon the intricate human world for the sake of an extreme idea; and his crazy, admirable virtue is part of the problem because it is admirable as well as crazy.

    Buñuel later thought Simon of the Desert could have been one of the scenes his pilgrims encounter in his film The Milky Way (1969), that eccentric voyage among Christian heresies. We might also see it as the middle work in a religious trilogy—although religion is scarcely absent from any of Buñuel’s films. In this reading, we would find in Nazarín the story of a priest who wanted to be a good and simple man, only to learn that the world had no use for his brand of goodness and simplicity. In The Milky Way, we would discover the elaborate unreason of Christianity, the endless ingenuity and invention it has put into the maintenance of its extravagant claims. And between the two—between failed simplicity and delirious complication—we would glimpse Simon on his pillar, a good man who has become the victim of an argument that won’t let him go.

    Michael Wood is the author of America in the Movies and a study of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour. His most recent book is Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.


  • By thivai
    February 04, 2009
    09:31 PM

    I arrived here searching for info for students on the film we watched tonight: The Seventh Seal and found this essay on a film I have been (im)patiently waiting to see. Just tonight after Bergman's film I told a Catholic student who talking about the Christian symbolism/references of TSS that they should check out Bunuel's film for a more satiric and equally powerful exploration of Christianity. I like how Wood starts off the essay by pointing out the absurdity that most enthusiastic atheist artists/critics probably have a stronger relationship with God (in that they question, challenge, research and dialogue with the religion) than halfhearted (lazy?) believers. I'm looking forward to seeing this film. Criterion--thank you for the continuing film education ...
  • By mark aaron jacobs
    February 06, 2009
    09:10 AM

    I would just like to thank all of you at The Criterion Collection for releasing both this film and "The Exterminating Angel". I have been a Bunuel fanatic since taking a class on him in 2001 at CU Boulder. I have been waiting a long time for quality editions of Bunuel's early work and have been very happy with the releases of "The MIlky Way" and "Phantom Of Liberty", but was wondering if "Tristana" or "Nazarin" would receive your treatment? Or possibly an Eclipse Edition of some of his early works, such as "Los Olvidados", "El", "L'Age D'Or", "Las Hurdes", "Un Chein Andalou"? Don't get me wrong I am grateful for any Criterion Bunuel, but "Simon Of The Desert" has really inspired hope that I will finally get to retire my sub-par foreign DVDs or old VHS.
  • By Drury L. Wilson
    February 06, 2009
    06:17 PM

    I am giddy with excitement over these two new Bunuel releases ! Thank you for giving these the Criterion treatment ! Viva Bunuel ! And Viva Criterilon !
  • By Gijs
    February 08, 2009
    07:28 AM

    A small addition to Prof. Woods' words on the "nice little platter party" at the ending of Simón del desierto. Buñuel hated the noice of electric guitars, as he declared on repeated occasions. He almost never went to the cinema, but, now and then his son Juan Luis took him out to see a film. According to Juan Luis, they went to see A Hard Day's Night together and - notwithstanding the guitars - Buñuel senior liked it a lot, because of the humour and the tecnique. The Beatle film came out in 1964, when Buñuel was making Simón. That man, who is "looking for solitude" although he is "not particularly particularly preoccupied with the dance" might as well be Buñuel's self-portrait. Thank you so much, Criterion Collection, for all the beautiful things you bring us!
  • By Ezra Stendhal D.
    February 09, 2009
    11:45 AM

    Congratulations for Criterion, Simon of the Desert is wonderful, this mini masterpiece is the most fun and charming( but deep in is religious dilemas) of all Buñuel films ( the anastasis and the hipostasis discussions are unforgettable funny)...........I think now that: Tristana, Nazarin and Los Olvidados above all ( the best mexican film) are the only Buñuel works that criterion must to include in the collection and all going to be perfect............... and talking about Mexican cinema you should look the nihilistic western: " Los Hermanos del Hierro" fromdirector Ismael Rodriguez is a cult mexican film and the best of this popular director from México with Buñuel mexican movies and Vamonos with Pancho Villa from director Fernando de Fuentes is my favorite Mexican film of all time.
  • By Erick D. Sanchez
    February 09, 2009
    11:38 PM

    Thanks for this DVDs, its great to see this films in a Criterion treatment, I hope if you can bring “Los Olvidados”, “El”, “Las Hurdes” and “Nazarin” in a Criterion edition and “Rehearsal for a Crime”, “Illusion Travels by Streetcar”, “El Gran Calvera” and “A Woman Without Love” in an Eclipse series, I really believe that “Los Olvidados” deserves the quality of a Special Edition. Also it will be great if you can bring more Mexican directors like Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez.
    February 19, 2009
    11:16 PM

  • By karl s.
    March 19, 2009
    04:00 PM

    i'd like to add my voice to those above-- i'd be happy to buy anything by bunuel on criterion, and if an eclipse set is the only way we can get some of the overlooked films, whether from the Mexican period or not, it's okay with me. i would guess, given the serious amount of bunuel you've already put out, that "Los Olvidados" will probably be a criterion title eventually. it's harder to gauge the wisdom of your releasing films like "el" or "nazarin," or even (digging deeper) las hurdes, etc. etc. but you can count on me buying any bunuel film you go to the trouble of releasing. thanks for the great work so far!
  • By Microcinema International
    October 14, 2009
    02:57 PM

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  • By Luis Miguel Romero
    January 07, 2010
    09:11 PM

    Hello! I'm a big fan of the Criterion Titles, specially of the Luis Buñuel`s masterpieces. My quest is: You bring coming soon Mexican movies by Emilio "El Indio" Fernández such "Maria Candelaria", "The pearl" or "Enamorada". I love the Fernandez`s greatests works!
  • By gabriel moyssen
    October 06, 2013
    01:51 AM

    Thanks for this explanation... as a mexican, I am proud of the good movies that were produced in my country in the 60s... Bunuel, Pinal, Brook and Alatriste were bold and brilliant in a very conservative and catholic Mexico.