Summing up Luis Buñuel's wicked Simon of the Desert is easy: Saint Simeon Stylites (Buñuel regular Claudio Brook) travels from the top of a small pillar, where he has been praying for six years, six months, and six weeks, to a larger pillar built by a worshiper. Atop the new pillar, he receives many adulators and priests but mostly spends his time resisting the temptations of the Devil (Sylvia Pinal). Simon talks of his devotions, the everyday sins of the many, and wags his finger at the Devil, until the temptress invokes a hairpin turn in the film's final measures.
Simon, which was the last of three films Buñuel made with Brook, Pinal, and Pinal's husband/producer Gustavo Alatriste, notoriously ran out of funding before it was completed, but its hard to imagine a more mainlined shot of Buñuel's Kool-Aid than the resulting 45-minute acid trip through heaven, hell, and the cracked earth. Resilient and complex despite its short narrative, Buñuel fashioned this outlandishly critical work from the story of the Syria-born Simeon Stylites the Elder, who started studying Christianity when he was 16 and then spent the rest of his life (37 years) praying on top of pillars.
Though this particular adherent allows a perfect setting for Buñuel to exercise his flippantly-controversial distaste for Judeo-Christian ethics, this also gives the director the perfect setting for one of his most radical bouts of experimentation and hallucinatory trickery. In his last altercation with the Devil, who arrives in a self-propelled casket, the final temptation is offered, sending Simeon and the Devil to a Bowery rock club where the kids are gyrating to a dance called "Radioactive Flesh." Simeon threatens to leave, but the Devil reminds him that he never will be able to. Drinking, listening to rock music, and dancing: the poor bastard!
Like The Milky Way, Simon serves as a perfect introduction for Buñuel neophytes to begin to find their way through the filmmaker's devious groove. Much more accessible than his later works and not nearly as dense as something like Viridiana, Simon streamlines the message and never begins to wear on your nerves, yet still retains the trademark nuances. Besides the heavily bestial intimations between a dwarf and his goat and Pinal sporting a beard as she shows some leg, the best moment involves an ancient witch running through the desert, naked as a jaybird, cursing the would-be saint. The moment gives Carlos Reygadas' Japón a run for its money.
What's always interesting about Buñuel, and why his pertinence remains, is how oddly plainspoken he is about religion and reality. If you didn't know any better, or if that magical blast to NYC had halted on Mexican soil, Simon could be taken as a very straightforward retelling of Simeon's struggles with sinning and his legions of followers. Obviously not one to paint a character of such high moral standards as without flaw, however, the director also shows the insufferable nature of such idols. You could forget how Buñuel charges all devout followers as weak-willed and easy to tempt and you would still have this poignant question: Who, in the name of all things Holy, would ever want to hang out, let alone follow, this bearded horse's ass?
Aka Simón del desierto.