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Luis Buñuel's "Simon of the Desert"

Won’t You Please Get Thee Behind Me?

by BEN SONNENBERG

Even as the credits unroll, this stunning, satirical movie by Luis Buñuel shows a spot in the vast sandy desert of 6th century Syria. A procession of the halt, the lame and the blind, along with assorted churchmen, makes its way past goats and cactus. They’ve come to praise Simon Stylites Jr. (Claudio Brook, looking like an El Greco) who stands atop a pillar in an ecstasy of self-denial. Wearing nothing but a sackcloth smock, Simon’s out there in all weathers, praising the Almighty. And so it’s been, says one of the monks without a trace of irony, for 6 years, 6 months and 6 days.

The monks humbly offer Simon a new and taller pillar, the gift of a rich citizen who’s been cured by the saint of “an unspeakable disease,” probably venereal to judge from the rich man’s shame-faced look. Simon accepts, and on his way to the new pillar, one of the monks brings forward Simon’s poor old mother. She wishes to be near you, says the cleric, “until the hour of her passing,” which clearly will be soon. The Holy Man responds, “My love for you must not come between my Lord and his servant.” And so on to the brand new pillar. Once there, Simon resumes his martyrdom, praising the Almighty and praying to be worthy of Him. Now and then he eats a lettuce leaf and sips a little water, pausing on occasion to address the multitudes, to rebuke a young monk with a roving eye and to perform the odd miracle.

Buñuel makes gentle fun of Simon, never forgetting the man’s fundamental decency. He saves most of his ridicule for the Roman Catholic Church which, in his view, requires saints to reinforce its hold over the credulous. It engages in scholiastic squabbles and neglects its duty to the poor. For instance, in one scene one of the monks becomes possessed and starts cursing his religion. “Up with the apocatastasis!” he cries. “Down with the holy hypostasis! Down with the anastasis!” And finally: “Down with Jesus Christ…” Looking baffled, a second monk turns to a third monk and says, “What is the apocatastasis?” The third monk, equally baffled, just shrugs.    

Enter the Devil (Sylvia Pinal, looking gorgeous) and the action starts heating up. Disguised as a prepubescent schoolgirl in an Edwardian sailor outfit, she skips about, rolling her hoop, flirting with Simon, praising his beard and his teeth “brushed clean with the urine of Syria.” Simon looks puzzled, as who wouldn’t be?

Then she reveals herself as the Devil by exposing her upper thigh and long garter belt. (This was one of Buñuel’s favorite ways of showing sexual arousal, whether in an innocent child or in a lubricous old man.) No longer puzzled, Simon pronounces the words, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” and transformed into a naked old hag, the Devil runs away. She vows angrily to return, and return she does, again and again, in various disguises, always to be banished by the same magic words.

The Devil wins out in the end. In Lamia mode, she sticks her tongue far into Simon’s ear, a blasphemous variation on The Annunciation, and this time the magic words don’t work. Buñuel’s depiction of Simon’s particular Hell needn’t be described, except to say that, in contrast to the rest of the movie, it’s shot entirely in close-ups and that Simon’s suffering there surely will earn him a place in the Calendar of Saints. Also, there’s a nifty joke at the end.

Simon of the Desert was Buñuel’s last Mexican movie. Though short (only 45 minutes), it is nevertheless an important work that looks magnificent, thanks to the virtuosity of its cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa (he shot The Exterminating Angel as well). And, just as The Exterminating Angel anticipates The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, so Simon of the Desert looks forward to The Milky Way, both of them color movies made late in Buñuel’s career.   

Details:
New, restored high-definition digital transfer
Released on February 10, 2009
1 Disc SRP: $24.95; Criterion Store price $19.96 
Mexico; 1965; Spanish; 45 minutes; Black and White; 1.33:1
New interview with actress Silvia Pinal and  A Mexican Buñuel (1995), 50-minute documentary by Emilio Maillé
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Michael Wood and a reprinted interview with Buñuel

BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of the original Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com