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SIMON OF THE DESERT (Simon del Desierto) (director/writer: Luis Buñuel; screenwriter: Julio Alejandro; cinematographer: Gabriel Figueroa; editor: Carlos Savage Jr.; music: Raul Lavista; cast: Claudio Brook (Simon), Silvia Pinal (The Devil), Hortensia Santovena (The Mother), Luis Aceves Castaneda (Priest), Enrique Álvarez Félix (Brother Matias), Antonio Bravo (Priest), Enrique del Castillo (The Mutilated One), Jesús Fernández Martínez (Zeno, Dwarf Goatherd); Runtime: 46; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gustavo Alatriste; Altura Films International; 1965-Mexico-in Spanish with English subtitles)
“Though flawed because of the cuts, what’s there is Buñuel at his wittiest having a good laugh at the church’s expense.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Luis Buñuel’s Old Testament fable (a bridge from his anti-religion Mexican films to his new works attacking the bourgeoisie such as Belle de Jour), is a sharp attack on organized religion that’s worth 45 minutes of any skeptic or believer’s time. It was meant to be longer but the producer ran out of money, which also meant an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending.

Claudio Brook plays fifth-century Christian Simon (later St. Simon Stylites), doing penance by living on a tall column in the middle of the Syrian desert and praying and dispensing words of wisdom to those who gather below. Simon makes for a ludicrous holy man as he goes on and on about becoming good enough for the Lord. A grateful businessman cured by the healer of a deadly illness gets him a bigger column to take his act to greater heights. Not caring to disappoint the man, the holy man reluctantly agrees. Members of a nearby abbey bring him small amounts of food, but one monk questions his piety by putting in his food bag rich delicacies. The food is rejected and the monk is shown to be a jealous lunatic for trying to put the martyr down as a phony. Simon’s elderly mother feels rejected by his abandonment and begs him to hug her before she dies, as the locals talk him down to give mom that hug. He says “nothing must come between the love of God and his servant, Simon,” but agrees to the embrace and then states that “their next meeting will be in Heaven.” Mom can’t part and camps out in the desert under his pillar while her son ignores her as he goes deep into prayer. Many visitors see him not because they’re believers but because they want him to perform a miracle for them or get some other favor, and become viewed as the hypocritical flocks who follow any religious movement by paying it lip service. A man without arms asks the ascetic to restore his hands, when he prays and the miracle occurs the ungrateful man, whose hands were chopped off because he was a thief, abruptly leaves without a word of gratitude and his first use of his new hands is to slap his child for asking him a simple question about his hands. A dwarf torments Simon for being nutty. In his solitary penance the Devil (Silvia Pinal) pays him a few visits, first dressed as a pretty peasant girl she shows him parts of her adult body, then while trapped inside a coffin tries to seduce him, and finally as a bearded Greek-like figure bares her female breasts. Simon fights off his lust and struggles with Satan to stop tormenting him. In a sudden shock ending, Simon is swept off his feet and transported to a disco in modern New York, where he’s seen in an uncomfortable pose observing the noisy scene. In real-life, Simon died in 459 at age 69, having lived 36 years of his life on the top of different pillars.

Though flawed because of the cuts, what’s there isBuñuel at his wittiest having a good laugh at the church’s expense because of their corruption and how the faithful follow religion for the rewards it offers and not necessarily because they’re spiritual. It’s a bleak vision, that gives little hope for organized religion as an answer to man’s problems.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”