What once made Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965) a favorite of university film classes—its 45-minute running time being perfect for one class session—has since conspired to make it one of the filmmaker’s more obscure works. After all, 45 minutes is an awkward fit for just about anything other than a classroom. That’s unfortunate, because this singular story of Simon Stylite (Claudio Brook), the fifth-century Christian ascetic who spent a large portion of his life communing with God from atop a pillar, is one of Buñuel’s richest and most complex films.
The film that we have—the final one Buñuel made in Mexico—isn’t quite the film the director intended. This was to have been a more elaborate feature, but when the money ran out during production, Buñuel was forced to end the movie in a rather abrupt manner. For some people, this ending doesn’t work. I’ve never subscribed to that view. To me, it feels like Buñuel’s period piece was deliberately blindsided by the “swinging 1960s,” and what started out as a playful rumination on religion became a comment on modern times—complete with the implication that what was happening wasn’t just outside the realm of Simon, but also outside the comprehension of the Beat generation. In any case, it is what we have—however, you feel about it.
The impression that the film is irreligious is an interesting one that doesn’t exactly add up. The film is clearly the work of a man who would say with a straight face, “I’m still an atheist, thank God.” As usual, there’s less a sense that Buñuel despises religion, but rather that he’s pretty much down on the Catholic Church: its hierarchy, its in-fighting and its hypocrisies. These things are often addressed in the film—sometimes over a stretch of the movie. Early on, the young monk Brother Matias (Enrique Alvarez Félix) cautions a dwarf goatherder (Jesus Fernandez) against the way in which he suspects the man of loving his flock. Later on the dwarf turns this same caution against Matias and his relationship with the older monks.
The basic thread of the film follows the attempts of Satan (Silvia Pinal) to seduce and corrupt Simon. The devil appears to him in various—none-too-convincing—disguises to test his faith. These attempts are generally playfully comic in nature—much more so than the scenes where his faith might well be tested by humankind. No sooner, for example, does he intercede with God to restore an amputee’s hands than the fellow uses his new appendages to slap his daughter for asking a question. Satan dressed up as Jesus or tooling through the desert in an apparently motorized coffin are mild by comparison.