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.