Simon of the Desert (1965)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writer: Luis Buñuel and Julio Alejandro
Cinematographer: Gabriel Figueora
by Jon Cvack
Here’s a short film from Luis Buñuel, accompanied on the Criterion Collection copy with a feature length documentary about the director’s life, which is a bit more interesting than the film. For anyone frustrated about where their career is going, Luis Buñuel was on the precipice of failure by his mid-40s, struggling to make another film, and even then, the opportunities he received were ultra low budgeted 10-day shoot, Corman-esque hispanic comedies.
As with other Buñuel films, the surrealistic narrative gets confusing, and I struggle to even interpret what’s being explored. Simon (Claudio Brook) has spent six years, six months, and six days upon a short, ten foot pillar, about to graduate to a much larger one. He is harassed by The Devil, played by frequent collaborator Silvia Pinal who takes many forms, including a bearded shepherd and a girl in a miniskirt in a New York dance club.
I suppose it’s due to the fact that movie lost half its budget and had to shut down production, leaving Buñuel with only half a film that leads to such a fuzzy conclusion. And yet having gone through The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois, The Obscure Object of Desire, The Exterminating Angel, and The Phantom of Liberty, I’m not too sure an additional half would have cleared things up any more.
Learning in the accompanying documentary that Buñuel was an atheist, I assume the story is dealing with the idolatry of false prophets. We’re not really sure what Simon has accomplished, or if he’s even led anyone to salvation. The graduation from one pillar to another is a decent metaphor for the Catholic faith, in which increasing one’s hardships gets one closer to God, quite literally in this instance. Simon is tempted by the gorgeous Silvia Pinal, who takes on various characters with her ever present sexuality oozing out no matter the costume. Simon remains strong and in the final sequence, which is quite interesting, he's now part of the beatnik New York culture, dancing in a club as the earliest days of rock ‘n roll are getting the kids all hot and bothered. I’m not sure whether it was all a dream or a fantasy, and given the budgetary shortfalls, I’m not sure Buñuel knew either. It does produce an interesting foil against the stoic lifestyle presented throughout the film. Some worship God, and new generations seem to worship sex, drugs, and rock and roll. One’s not necessarily presented as superior to the other. Just different. Temptations arise no matter the pursuit.
Possibly better than the film itself is the pillar’s construction, which was abandoned by the production crew and left as an obstacle in the peasant’s field, forcing them to farm around it. When a truck comes in with a crane to dig it out, the crew can’t make it budget. It’s far too heavy. It’s quite poetic knowing that the pillar was a representation of the Christian faith, and that it must remain where it is and for the lowest class citizens to work around. Most have probably never seen the film, and I’m sure that they wouldn’t understand what it’s about more than anyone else. I was hoping for a bit more of the false prophet angle, or a heavier allegory for Jesus. Instead, the film ended, I immediately put on the documentary, and didn’t really find myself meditating on what it all meant, until I had to write this. Onto the next one, though.
BELOW: For English speakers, don't worry about the lack of subtitles; it still doesn't make sense
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