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Simon of the Desert (1965) marks the end of Luis Bunuel's fruitful Mexican period, the last of the 20 pictures he made there. His next film, Belle de Jour (1967), found him back in Europe, where over the following decade he would create his most widely seen and internationally acclaimed films. But even with its brief running time of only 43 minutes, Simon of the Desert has gained a reputation as one of the director's most accomplished works. It is also one of his most characteristic, with its combination of profoundly serious themes and wickedly funny satire and its examination of dogma, heresy and the stifling hypocrisy of the Church. These ideas run deeply through Bunuel's Mexican period, in such films as Nazarin (1959) and Viridiana (1961), and echo forward throughout his later productions, most notably the French-made La Voie Lactee/The Milky Way (1969).
On his return to Mexico after shooting The Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) in France, Bunuel set to work on a scenario based on the story of 5th-century Syrian saint Simeon Stylites, who spent 37 years of his life perched atop a pillar as a show of his devotion to God. This self-sacrificing gesture was also intended as a rejection of worldly concerns (many similar cases of pole-perching "stylites" were recorded from the 5th to the 14th centuries throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe). Bunuel got the idea from The Golden Legend, a 13th-century biography of saints that the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca had recommended to him years before.
In Bunuel's story, Simon is deeply religious and pious to a fault; his faults are soon revealed to be egotistic pride and self-delusion. He sits atop his pillar to get closer to God, occasionally ministering to the devotees who come to see him in the desert and performing miracles that go relatively unnoticed outside his immediate circle. For example, his restoration of a poor peasant's hands who has been unable to provide for his family after having them chopped off for a theft; when the man gets his hands restored, the first thing he does is slap his annoying daughter.
A wealthy man, seeking to buy favor with heaven, builds Simon an even higher and more elegantly designed pillar, but once placed on top of it, farther removed from earth and therefore given to more solitary introspection, the saint finds himself struggling with temptation from the Devil, played by Mexican actress Silvia Pinal, the star of Bunuel's Viridiana. In a surprisingly abrupt ending, the Devil whisks Simon off his perch and drags him to a modern-day New York discotheque, where the saint looks just like the other beatnik clubbers.
Although he originally conceived the story to be twice its final length, Bunuel was forced by financial circumstances to make the abrupt and unexpected conclusion. Before the money ran out, Bunuel was planning to show Simon on an even taller column, roughly 60 feet high and near the sea, where the Church hierarchy would come to see him. But after 18 days of filming, he suddenly found himself having to come up with an ending, and decided to take him off his column. "We had already seen that for much too long," Bunuel later told Beatriz Reyes Nevares for her book on Mexican directors. "I was interested in seeing Simon's reaction when he returns to the world. But the end result was dubious."
Bunuel's opinion notwithstanding, the sudden twist to the ending and the film's brief running time do little to blunt its meaning or power. Within this film, the great Surrealist filmmaker was also able to further explore his fascination with dreamlike states, and all the absurdity, desire and frustration inherent in them.
"Dreams are the first cinema invented by mankind, and they have a greater wealth of possibilities than cinema itself," Bunuel explained to Reyes Nevares. "Not even the richest producer could finance the superproduction of certain dreams."
Bunuel and Simon of the Desert won the FIPRESCI Prize (bestowed by the International Federation of Film Critics) and a Special Jury Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1965. The director and the film were also nominated for the festival's top Golden Lion Award.
Director: Luis Bunuel
Producer: Gustavo Alatriste
Screenplay: Luis Bunuel, Julio Alejandro
Cinematography: Gabriel Figueroa
Editing: Carlos Savage
Original Music: Raul Lavista
Cast: Claudio Brook (Simon), Silvia Pinal (Devil), Hortensia Santovena (Mother), Jesus Fernandez Martinez (Rabadan), Enrique Alvarez Felix (Brother Matias).
by Rob Nixon