SIMON OF THE DESERT (Luis Buñuel, 1965)

Its shooting aborted, apparently, when the producer ran out of money, Luis Buñuel’s Mexican Simón del desierto is set in the past. The film skewers organized religion and laments the gap between one man’s asceticism and the grubby self-interest of those purportedly enthralled by him.
     Simon emulates St. Simeon Stylites, the fifth-century fanatic, by standing on a gigantic, narrow column in the desert—on one foot, even, when he feels obliged to do penance. He has been at it for six years, six months, six days when Satan, in the form of a temptress, pops up to taunt and seduce him. At the end s/he takes him by airplane to 1960s Manhattan, where his column has been multiplied into skyscrapers; in a swinging nightclub, when he half-heartedly announces he is going home, s/he informs him that he has already been replaced on top of the column—the implication being, with nobody, including the priests, any the wiser.
     In one of the vignettes way below Simon in the desert, a former thief asks for the restoration of his hands—they were lopped off as punishment—so that he can farm again and support his family. Simon prays while one of the large gathering quips, “Maybe today we’ll see one of Simon’s miracles.” Indeed, the hands are suddenly back on the man, whose nonplussed response, however, wittily robs the moment of the miraculous. There is also the implication that, if need be, he will steal again.
     Buñuel visually plays with the question mark of whether Simon’s being so far above other humans sets him any closer to God, and the turbulent, windswept black-and-white images of Simon recorded by an upwardly tilted camera, beautifully cinematographed by Gabriel Figueroa, suggest an unsettled soul for all Simon’s air of confident faith.

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