Angels and Demons Week: Review: Simon del Desierto

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Simon del Desierto (1965). Director: Luis Buñuel. Cast: Silvia Pinal, Claudio Brook.

Luis Buñuel is one of my favourite filmmakers of all time and Simon del Desierto is one of the last films he made in Mexico. Like several other of his movies, it tackles religion, this time by focusing on a saintly man and the devil tempting him.

The saint is Simon, a man who, in order to purify himself and be closer to God, has spent the last six years perched atop a column in the desert. Martyrdom and sainthood have always fascinated me since I encountered richly-coloured illustrations of martyrs with their entrails sticking out of them and their heads cut off, and that sort of stuff during my childhood. I think Buñuel must have had a similar fascination with Catholicism and a similar revulsion. While some viewers might think he’s gearing up for a full-fledged, angry critique of religion, Buñuel always struck me as a director capable of understanding human nature, and its heights and follies. He is mordant, with good reason, but he also hopes for the better side of humans to rise to the occasion. One can see that Buñuel admires Simon, but he also realizes the futility and pointlessness of his actions.

For example, at the beginning of the movie, Simon is offered a new pillar on which to stand. For a man who claims to want to be close to God and bereft of any wordly desires, he quickly climbs onto the new pillar. Later on, he performs a miracle, restoring the amputated hands of a man. The man’s first act is to slap his child with his new hands. Then the Devil appears in the form of pretty, blonde actress Silvia Pinal.

Pinal was a popular, blond bombshell who tended to appear in comedies and musicals. Buñuel cast her in dramatic roles and she did a good job in those, but I enjoyed her more in Simon than other Buñuel films because she seems to have more fun in this flick. She certainly makes an eye-catching and naughty devil, first appearing dressed as a schoolgirl and showing off her sexy legs, then donning other disguises to try and tempt Simon down from his pillar.

Nothing seems to work. Nothing, that is, until the conclusion of the film when the Devil climbs up the pillar and abruptly transports Simon to a 1960s nightclub. Simon, in modern clothes, watches as people dance to a tune (It’s called “Radioactive Flesh”, the Devil says) and the camera pulls away, with the bored-looking saint sitting in the disco while the Devil dances merrily.

In Viridiana (the first Buñuel-Pinal collaboration), a virtuous nun, who even carries her own crown of thorns in her suitcase, enters into contact with the secular world. Trying to help the needy, she ends up almost being raped by the beggars she takes in. That movie concludes with the nun, having burned her crown of thorns, knocking on the door of a young, attractive man she had refused before, only to find him playing cards with another woman. He urges her to join their game (an implied ménage à trois). What Viridiana spells out is simple: good intentions are not enough, and naive people may pay a high price for their ignorance of the darker depths of human nature.

In Simon del Desierto, there is a different sort of ignorance at play and Simon ultimately pays the price: his desire for extreme holiness corrupts him, just in another way. The House always wins and so does the Devil.

If you contrast Simon del Desierto to Incubus, they are almost diametrically opposed. Incubus speaks of salvation, and of salvation through a human emotion (love). Simon talks of damnation and self-denial, and the indifference of a God who seems to care little about the saint perched atop a pillar. If anything, it is the Devil who cares. However, Simon is not a movie that offers fleshy and earthly pleasures as an alternative because, by the conclusion, Simon looks as bored and stony as he did at the beginning of the film.

If you’ve watched other Buñuel films like Los Olvidados (a look at a gritty, poverty-stricken Mexico City), you can see Simon as an appropriate conclusion to a series of movies that gradually despair more and more at humanity. What is the point of it all?

Not a horror film but certainly a devilish one.

Simon del Desierto can be purchased through Amazon.com.

Angels and Demons Week continues until December 31.

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IFPAngels and Demons Week: Review: Simon del Desierto