Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Simon of the Desert (Simón del Desierto)

SIMON OF THE DESERT (Simón del Desierto)         A                    
Mexico  (45 mi)  1965  d:  Luis Buñuel

Simon of the desert, who is the most free man on Earth because he has and does what he wants, without any obstacles. He is there on top of a column, eating lettuce. Total freedom.
—Luis Buñuel, 1965

I am still, thank God, an atheist.       —Luis Buñuel, in a 1960 L'Express interview

What am I to God? Nothing, a murky shadow. My passage on this earth is too rapid to leave any traces; it counts for nothing in space or in time. God really doesn’'t pay any attention to us, so even if he exists, it’s as if he didn’t.                    
My Last Sigh, Luis Buñuel’s autobiography, 1983

Besides being a spiritual exercise, blessing is good fun, too.     —Simón (Claudio Brook)

Impossible not to like this film, pre-dating the savage satire of Monty Python, this one taking aim at the exalted ambitions of man, one of Buñuel’s most scathingly hilarious films, which starts out deceptively serious before unleashing a bitingly absurd commentary about the pretentious behavior of the church.  The inspiration for the film came from a 13th century book recommended to Buñuel by the poet Federico García Lorca, containing the story of St. Simon Stylites, as ascetic who reportedly stood on a column in the middle of the desert for 37 years during the 5th century.  Similarly set during the early era of Christian ascetics, Simón (Claudio Brook) is the picture of saintly piety, spending years of his life standing atop a small tower in the desert, denying himself all earthly pleasures, where he is already regarded as a saint, which unfortunately has gone to his head, as the ever serious Simón believes he is closer to God than other mere mortals.  There is beautiful camera work by Gabriel Figueroa whose high angle views of the lofty tower in an empty desert perfectly embrace the lofty pretensions of man to elevate their souls, with wonderful dialogue written by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro, who together also co-wrote NAZARÍN (1959) and VIRIDIANA (1961).  The last of Buñuel’s highly regarded Mexican films, Simón is seen as a heavily bearded Holy Fool, talking superficial gibberish to himself much of the time while believing his conscious is in an eternal struggle with God’s will, continually asking if heaven is ready to accept him yet, where the church makes daily visits to his tower, bringing him lettuce and water, but also praying with him while making snide comments behind his back, jealous that Simón receives greater notoriety than the learned bishops or priests. 

While Simón makes blessings and religious pronouncements, as if he’s become God’s spokesperson, he also criticizes others for not being pious enough, chastising a young monk for being too young, as he can’t even grow a beard yet, and then contemptuously pushes his own mother aside at one point when he comes down from the tower after he's been on the same platform for 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days (a Revelations reference to the devil) for a brand new tower just a few yards away that’s even higher, supposedly closer to heaven, specially built for him by a local businessman who he miraculously cured of illness.  This gesture appears particularly crude when we see that his mother has been keeping a silent vigil at his side for many years, living a solitary existence in a hut nearby where she can stand watch over her son.  Simón even performs a miracle, as a thief whose hands have been cut off by the local priests asks for a new pair of hands, which suddenly appear, whereupon he leaves to go home, hardly even amazed, without an ounce of gratitude, having received what he wanted, and then strikes his kids on the head with his new hands when they curiously ask if they are the same hands as before.  But there are those who question his sincerity, accusing him of being a charlatan, who are then struck mad on the spot, as if by divine order. 

At one point a visiting monk says to the protagonist “Your asceticism is sublime.”  But the real thrill is the presence of Sylvia Pinal as the devil temptress who attempts to lure Simón down from his tower.  She takes on various disguises, from a young girl in a sailor suit who bares her breasts and shows off her stockings, who magically appears on the tower next to Simón whispering in his ear, calling him weak and timid, poking fun at his slave-like devotion and his ridiculous display of pretense, a hypocrite who hasn’t an ounce of mercy, before turning into a Christ-like shepherd with a beard who at first fools Simón before tempting him to choose a life of sensual pleasure, so he immediately decides in absurd penance that he will stand on only one leg.  She immediately kicks a lamb and asks, “What kind of crap is this?”  The running dialogue between the two is priceless, as Simón asks Satan to repent her wicked ways.  Satan, wondering what would happen if she did, asks whether God would accept her back into Heaven?  Of course the answer is no, as she’s been condemned to Hell.  Satan indicates it’s only a matter of time before Simón will join her. 

No one despised the Catholic Church as much as Luis Buñuel, where SIMON OF THE DESERT and VIRIDIANA (1962) comprise two of the more devastating attacks not only on the church, but the moral hypocrisy of their role, where much like Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov, the church no longer needs a living Christ as they have appropriated the religious message from God and replaced it with an infallible theocratic doctrine that only they control, forcing parishioners to submit to their authoritarian rules and dictates while amassing great power and wealth.  Too often the church overlooks the moral sins of its own corruption and the criminal activity of sexually impure priests in the interest of the church, which supposedly stands above all and governs by autocratic rule.  Buñuel’s films mock the churches power and the sheepish conformity of organized religion by asking the filmgoing audience to think for themselves and exercise their own free will, using Simón as Christ’s misguided and self-important religious fanatic, placing himself above man where he undermines his own special purpose.  Even the miracles performed by Simón are taken for granted, having little to do with God or religious faith, and instead are so routinely expected that followers would be disappointed if they didn’t witness one, eventually losing interest in Simón altogether when they don’t, becoming passé, where his message is soon forgotten. 

And in a wonderful image of an airplane flying overhead, Simón is whisked ahead into the future surrounded by tall skyscrapers where he and Satan sit at a swinging 1960’s New York City discotheque where writhing kids are dancing non-stop to the grinding electric rock sounds of a group called Los Sinners in an expression of sheer joy and sensuality playing a primitive piece of music called “Radioactive Flesh” Los Sinners - Rebelde Radioactivo YouTube (3:49).  Simón, now with short cropped hair, is smoking a pipe, looking very professorial, playing the part of an aging intellectual, serious and forlorn, while Satan in a miniskirt, smoking like a chimney, urges the dancers to keep up their frenetic rhythm as they frolic the night away.  Instead of ascending to heaven like he hoped and prayed for all those years placing himself on his own self-inflated pedestal, he’s instead whisked into a purgatory of Hell dancing with the Devil, a near perfect masterpiece that is rollicking fun.  Part of a religious trilogy with NAZARÍN (1959) and THE MILKY WAY (1969), the production ran out of money, cutting short what was intended to be a feature length film, but in its brevity becomes a more perfectly concise work with a singularly unique vision and plenty of Buñuel wit.  

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