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Canon Entry - Simon of the Desert (1965)

Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.

Towards the beginning of Simon of the Desert, a man with no hands visits with his family the great saint Simon Stylites, who has stood atop a pillar for six years, six weeks and six days. He begs Simon for a miracle since he needs to provide for his family. Simon prays and the man’s hands are restored. Instead of crying out of gratitude or some other appropriate reaction to this miracle, the man immediately accepts his new reality and becomes all business, stressing the need to go back to work immediately. The first significant thing he does with the hands he has been gifted is to smack his daughter on the back of the head for getting fresh with him. The rest of the crowd that has come to witness Simon all leave unimpressed, and Simon is left alone.

It was at this moment that I knew just how well Luis Bunuel understood Christianity. Bunuel was famously anti-Catholic and anti-Fascism, especially when the two were conflated in Franco-ruled Spain. His previous two movies, Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel, excoriated the Catholic Church. Specifically, he hated the hypocrisy of the church’s munificence, and how it seemed to only extend to wealthy people, or if it did extend to poor people, it was only meant as a temporary solution and did not come with any serious restructuring of the system that oppressed them in the first place. The supposed ingratitude of the poor people at the end of Viridiana when they trash her house is a perfect embodiment of this attitude.

Yet only a dedicated atheist could know the intricacies of Christian doctrine so well and the behavior it inspires. Going to that moment of the man getting his hands restored, the Bible is full of moments like this when God blesses someone and then the person blessed immediately forgets God’s blessing, even though he (often he) clearly witnessed something miraculous. At a more mundane level, Christians often fall into the trap of treating God as a genie rather than someone to be worshipped and honored. I have never seen a better embodiment of this attitude than in this scene, and it resonates even today.

Bunuel, as grand an artist as history has made him out to be, loves looking at the small details in a new way just as much as he likes grand societal institutions. For instance, we quickly learn that Simon is not above pettiness and arrogance. He mutters to himself hat man is God’s most despicable creation and that it pains him to even be near them. It gives a whole new meaning to why he would to be on top of a pillar for so long. We see the priests muttering about Simon and his self-righteousness even as they flatter him to his face. Even a potentially problematic portrayal of a shepherd who is a little person is quite funny, especially when he complains about Simon not acknowledging his gift to him. Much of this movie plays on the importance of appearance and how secondary it is to intention.

One of the few characters to baldly show their intentions is the Devil, played by Silvia Pinal. She is clearly not impressed with Simon, and her attempts to bring Simon down from the pillar are both ribald and profane. I don’t think Bunuel’s wicked sense of humor is emphasized enough. The Devil’s first attempts to seduce Simon are so childish and crass that one can’t help but to laugh. It’s interesting to see that Bunuel had Satan try different strategies each time, even though she clearly is more powerful than Simon by himself and could have just gone straight for the jugular. When she comes to him posing as Jesus, I seriously think Bunuel chose the cheesiest looking beard possible. The moment when she drop kicks the lamb she is holding is a gag I’ve seen in South Park, though I’m not sure how familiar Parker and Stone are with Bunuel. I seriously think he just wanted to show off Silvia Pinal being wicked, especially after she had played the polar opposite as a virginal woman in Viridiana.

I think it’s important to point out that Bunuel does not really criticize the Christian doctrine itself, even though he clearly could have had a ball with it. It’s too easy to point out the seeming inconsistencies of the faith, even back in the 60’s. On the contrary, he allows Simon to wrestle with his faith, flawed as it is. He even gives Simon and Satan a rather pointed conversation about Satan’s dilemma, that even if she were to truly repent, she would never be restored to her former glory. It’s a rare moment of real reflection, but Bunuel knows better than to dig into these complicated matters.

Even though I don’t imagine Bunuel hanging out with too many practicing, devoted Catholics during this time, he understands the anxiety of worldly concerns that they all face, of making sure that they appear holy to the right people, no matter how they feel in their heart. Even with Simon, the one he is trying to impress is not necessarily God, but rather himself. His rules for his penance seem to be arbitrary. Even his defining trademark - standing on a pillar - does not seem to be inspired so much by God as it was by his own stubborn individualism. Bunuel knew that this self-seriousness was the real flaw of followers of any belief, which is why he finds every way possible to undermine the gravity of the story.

Apparently this film was meant to be part of a triptych with Pinal playing the main role in all three films. This film almost didn’t happen simply because of lack of funding, especially when Alatriste, Pinal’s husband, ran out of money after only five reels. The scene that takes place in a 60’s nightclub was a last minute idea tacked on to the end. It’s tempting to give directors credit for their unanticipated ingenuity even when there are clearly moments that don’t fit or were the result of human error. Nevertheless, I think the scene works quite brilliantly. Rather than noting the clearly decadent (and admittedly really fun) world of this nightclub though, which I guess could represent how far humanity has fallen into material excess, I see Simon, sitting sullen and looking like a Beatnik in the middle of this club with that same pensive look. He is just as alone in that club as he was in that desert, only the prison is in his mind.

 

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