Thursday, February 19, 2009

Simon of the Desert

Luis Buñuel's final film of his Mexican period is the short, punchy Simon of the Desert, possibly the great surrealist's wittiest and funniest film, and certainly his most focused meditation on a subject that interested him throughout his career: the combined folly and nobility of profound religious faith. Certainly, there is no protagonist in Buñuel's oeuvre who better represents this dialectical representation of religion than the holy fool Simon (Claudio Brook), an ascetic who lives alone in the desert on the top of a pillar, fasting, praying, willfully turning his back on the entirety of the world. When the film opens, he has in essence been rewarded for his solitary suffering: the local priests come to offer Simon a better, taller pillar, donated by a rich man, and Simon accepts. The man who professes to want no worldly things, to have no need for his fellow beings, thinks nothing of taking this gift, a worldly and ornate pillar on which he can make his ascetic offerings to God. Buñuel makes even more of a sly joke of it by having the priests tell him that he's been standing on this pillar for six years, six months and six days: the Biblical number of the Beast from the Book of Revelations, a sign of the Apocalypse.

For Simon, this apocalypse of course comes in a very worldly form, specifically in the form of the luscious, womanly Silvia Pinal, a recurring Buñuel player most famous for her lead role in Viridiana. She is a seductive, strangely appealing Devil, appearing beneath Simon's pillar or even on it with him to offer him various temptations — not least of which is her own disrobed body. She appears first as a hip-swaying local woman who catches the eye of one of the priests but not of Simon, who uses her only as an example of the evil lure of women. She appears next as a faux-schoolgirl with sexy garters and stockings beneath her innocent uniform, singing a shrill and sing-songy mockery of Simon's religious devotion while trying to seduce him with her long, serpentine tongue or bare breasts. Most cleverly (and hilariously), she briefly tricks Simon by appearing to him as an embodiment of God himself, a young shepherd in a tunic with an unconvincing blonde beard and curls obscuring her femininity. Pinal is, in fact, not Buñuel's vision of the Devil but the vision of the Devil that Simon himself might concoct: the man who turns his back on the world is of course tempted by a Devil who offers nothing but worldly, fleshy pleasures. Simon, though, is stoic, and Pinal's Satan seduces the audience long before she is able to hold any sway over her faithful target.

Despite the obvious twinkling-eyed glee that Buñuel takes in his incarnation of Satan, the film's sympathy is more closely aligned with Simon despite his religious asceticism and ridiculousness. Buñuel seems to have a grudging respect for the extent of Simon's devotion, even as he mocks and satirizes the pointless disconnection from the world that it entails. Simon is a kind, generous, noble man, a true gentle spirit who seems unable even to comprehend the petty nastiness and jealousies of other men. He has real problems communicating with his fellow men, not understanding concepts like conflicts over property or the desire for food that provides more than basic sustenance. His separation from the world is extreme, but there's something pure and sweet about Simon, especially in comparison to the crassness of the people around him. In one early scene, Simon performs a miracle by restoring the amputated hands of a man in the crowd. The miracle is accompanied by typically sweeping, ecstatic religious music, culminating in a wondrous moment when the man looks at his former stumps and finds his hands, suddenly, returned. The religious ecstasy is short-lived, however. The man abruptly, without giving thanks or showing any further sign of wonder or happiness, gathers his wife and children and heads back home to hoe his garden; his first action with his new hands is to slap one of his daughters for pestering him with questions. In the crowd, as two men walk away, one asks if the other saw that. "What?" "That thing with the hands." The answer is an indifferent grunt and a shrug.

Clearly, Buñuel is to some extent satirizing the self-centered, disinterested outlook of these people, who have little wonder or gratitude for Simon's miracles; their selfishness and bitterness seems like a dark contrast to Simon's gentle nature and devotion. But this scene is not as simple as it seems on its surface. In fact, what Buñuel is pointing out here is that these people literally can't afford to live in the same way as Simon does. When the man gets his hands back, his first thought is not to give thanks or offer prayer, but to get back home as soon as possible so he can start doing what he could not do before: hoe his garden, growing crops to make money and feed his family. Even the two men in the crowd who react so stoically to this miracle turn to talking about food instead, inquiring if there is any bread left. For these people, Simon's life of religious devotion is a kind of luxury, a freedom from practicality and everyday concerns like caring for one's family and having enough to live and eat. Simon's diet might be meager, but his food and water are brought to him every week by the priests. He does not provide for himself, and so can afford to give himself up utterly to God, to place himself on a literal pedestal above his fellow man: a gesture of pride at his ability to avoid the petty struggles for survival that occupy the poor beings scurrying around below him.

In this way, Buñuel makes Simon a curiously ambivalent figure, a man genuinely striving for spiritual purity and communion with God who, in doing so, alienates himself from both the pleasures and the responsibilities of humanity. Simon is certainly not immune to the sharp crack of Buñuel's satirical whip. With his bizarre forked beard and oblivious manner, Simon is an obvious target for mockery, like the scene where he stumbles in the middle of a prayer and forgets what to say next. He's so disconnected from the world that he constantly threatens to lose track even of his own actions. At one point, he acquires a passing mania for blessings, blessing the poor and their soil, a goat and its profane midget owner and a cricket before looking around for more things to bless, rambling and mumbling to himself. He even reaches into his mouth, pulls out a tooth and begins gesturing as though about to bless it, stopping short when he realizes what he's doing and tosses the tooth aside. Brook plays Simon as a combination saintly holy man, delirious lunatic and senile old fogey, and his distracted behavior is both endearing and silly.

Nowhere is Buñuel's ambivalence towards this religious icon more apparent than in the film's brilliant final sequence, in which Pinal's Satan devises her final temptation for Simon: she whisks him, via passing jumbo jet, into a modern-day city. Here, Simon and Satan attend a dance club together, watching the teenagers do a new dance; Pinal says it's called "radioactive flesh," the "latest dance and the last dance," and the teens' spastic, frenetic movements indeed suggest the contortions of flesh on fire. But this is a seduction that Simon doesn't resist too fiercely. He simply sits off to the side, not participating in the dance but not running away either, calmly smoking a pipe, his beard groomed and his rags exchanged for a smart college professor sweater. He doesn't quite give in, it's more like a compromise with Satan. Perhaps, ultimately, the world just proves too much fun, too energetic, too wild and free to sit entirely apart from it. As the bodies whirl across the screen and Pinal's smirking Satan joins the party, the film simply ends, with Simon trapped, not altogether unwillingly, in the midst of the chaotic frenzy of the dance, a worldly, sexualized dance he'd spent his whole live until then scrupulously avoiding. Buñuel neither celebrates nor mourns Simon's "fall," but views it as necessary, a condition of existence: we must all make peace with the dance.


andrew schenker said...

Great piece, Ed.

Like many, I recently got a chance to see this film thanks to the Criterion DVD and it's definitely among my favorite Bunuels. Having watched it twice, I think the key to the picture is the ambivalent way in which Simon is presented, which you outline in great detail above. In his review of the film, Ed Gonzalez noted that "both critics and fans of Simon of the Desert seem to think Bunuel condescends to the titular Simon" and he does, of course, have some fun at his character's expense, but what struck me is how sympathetically the director views his subject, treating him with the "grudging respect" that you mentioned. Simon's ascetecism may be more-than-a-little ridiculous and it may seperate him from the rest of humanity, but it's also an impressive and largely admirable pursuit.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Andrew, I agree that it's one of Bunuel's best. I think what's most interesting in Bunuel's religious critiques in general is how assiduously he refuses to condescend to religious devotion: he admires the strong, noble qualities of extreme religious faith even as he mocks and satirizes it, and in the finale, acknowledges how inadequate it is to the modern world. In a way, there's even a note of sadness and resignation to the ending, when it becomes apparent that a figure like Simon can no longer truly exist.

Joel Bocko said...

Great review of a movie I have yet to see. But you manage to offer in-depth descriptions without dragging the piece down into mere plot recital. I have a feeling I'd like this movie more than most Bunuels (not that I dislike what I've seen, but compared to his reputation, Bunuel has often left me underwhelmed).

Anonymous said...

Great review of one of this magisterial director's best films. I certainly myself would rank it in the company of VIRIDIANA, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, EL, LOS OLVIDADOS, and LA CHAME DISCREET DE LA BOURGEIOSIE among his greatest achivements in cinema. I certainly do not agree with my good friend Movie Man here when he says he is "underwhelmed" by Bunuel, as the Spanish director is one of the supreme masters of the cinema, and it's greatest satirist. He is in fact the "favorite" director of teh folks at Criterion ever since teh laserdisc days. His atheism, attacks on catholicism (evident most forcefully in this film and in a number of others including the aforementioned EL and in NAZARIN, and in the gun-toting priest in LA CHARME DISCREET) and his dark humor are in a class by themselves.

For me Bunuel is with Bergman and Bresson (the three B's) as the greatest directors of the cinema. But again, my goiod friend Movie Man, I did take note of what you said about wanting more exposure to him, that's fair enough my friend. I saw this film in a graduate cinema class over 22 years ago, and have watched it many times since. The new Criterion release of course is a godsend.

Ed Howard's astonishing talents know no limitations and his review here is definitely Only the Cinema Hall of fame material if I may say so.

Ed Howard said...

I love Bunuel in general, and agree with Sam that he's up there with the best. But I would say that this film is probably his most accessible, and one that would likely appeal even to those who don't ordinarily enjoy his work. By the same token, it's probably a good introduction to a deeper understanding of Bunuel, a good way to get acquainted with his signature themes in a very accessible (and funny) form. Definitely one of his very best, along with the sublime Los Olvidados, which really needs a DVD release on a par with the job Criterion did on this one.

Anonymous said...

Idiots. Bunuel hated religion.

The movie was an attack on Simon and religion--Simon was not benevolent, he thought himself superior to the priests and peasants.

p.s. the man's hand was original cut off for smacking a child.

Ed Howard said...

Nasty tone and anonymity: the Internet in a nutshell.

Anyway, I don't disagree that Bunuel hated religion and mocks it pretty thoroughly in this film. But he was also fascinated by religion (which is why he kept returning to it as a subject) and you're only seeing one aspect of the film, missing the much more ambivalent presentation of Simon's religious devotion. Yes, Simon thinks he's superior to everyone else but that's only part of his character.

brandon said...

Correction to previous anonymous poster: The man's hands were not cut off for slapping the child. They were cut off for stealing, which is clearly stated. The sardonic joke here is that this probably means he was punished for stealing twice, once even after losing the first hand.