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After being forced to self-exile by the Spanish Civil War, Spaniard
director Luis Buñuel moved to Mexico, and found in the country's
struggling film industry the freedom he had so long desired. In the
late 50s, and after a decade of making some of the best Mexican movies
ever mad, he met Gustavo Alatriste and his wife, actress Silvia Pinal.
Alatriste was very interested in Buñuel's cinema and decided to produce
Buñuel's movies with Pinal as main actress. This partnership gave
Buñuel even more freedom than before, and resulted in three of the most
interesting and controversial films of his career. "Viridiana", "El
Ángel Extreminador" and this movie, "Simón del Desierto", form a
trilogy where Buñuel criticizes mercilessly, but with humor, the
hypocrisy of the high society, the government and of course, religion.
Simón (Claudio Brook) is a deep religious man who decided that to be closer to God, he should remain alone in a column, living as an hermit practicing asceticism, in order to escape from the world's temptations. Soon Simón becomes to be regarded as a Saint, and people from all over the region come to hear him speak, and witness his miracles. Satan (Silvia Pinal) visits Simón too, in an attempt to tempt Simón with the earthly pleasures that Simón has decided to leave behind. However, the Devil is probably the lesser of Simón's problems, as his own elitist position as an outsider makes him to discover the truth behind organized religion, and so he begins question the nature of what he does, and more importantly, what he believes.
Written by Luis Buñuel and Julio Alejandro (Buñuel's collaborator in "Nazarín" and "Viridiana"), the story of "Simón del Desierto" is loosely based on the real life story of Saint Simeon Stylites, a monk who like Simón, decided to spent his days at the top of a pillar. "Simon del Desierto" parodies St. Simeon's story in a wonderful satire about the way Saints are seen and venerated by the religious people. Using the character of Simón, Buñuel explores the human side of religion and with a good dose of humor, he completely exposes his views on it, making a sharp criticism not on religion itself, but on religious organizations and their blind and passive followers, who in Buñuel's eyes, become more and more dehumanized the closer they get to God.
In many ways, "Simón del Desierto" works like a slow and fascinating descend into one of Buñuel's surreal nightmares. With a beautiful cinematography by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa, the movie feels initially as a real biopic of the Saint's life, but the portrait of dignity that Buñuel seems to be creating with Simon soon discovers itself as an absurd, as Simón's exaggerated Holiness proves to be as corrupting as the Devil's temptations, and through a series of visions Buñuel breaks the realistic tone and smoothly turns the movie into a surreal madness apparently mimicking the dehumanization of the Saint. The madness concludes in one of Buñuel's most strange finales ever, inviting the audience to make their own conclusions about the movie, and about sainthood.
Claudio Brook and Silvia Pinal are basically the main cast of the film, and their work together is really amazing. A very underrated actor, Brook is very convincing, and very funny too, making Buñuel's character come to life and carrying the film with natural ease and powerful presence. Brook delivers his lines with dignity and power, as if he was really being an actor in a biography of the Saint (Ironically, he would play Jesus in two films after "Simón del Desierto"). Silvia Pinal is very good as the Devil, although not as impressive as she was in "Viridiana", she delivers an excellent performance as the erotic representation of Satan. The supporting cast is very small, and have very limited screen time, but overall they do a good job. Jesús Fernández shines in the small role of a dwarf goatherd who seems to know more than what his humble looks tell.
The movie is probably one of the most interesting films of Buñuel, but at the same time one of the most troubled, as the low budget couldn't allow him better production values. But the worse flaw occurred because in a very unfortunate incident, Alatriste was unable to complete the funding of Buñuel's film, so the director was forced to stop the film's production and make a quick ending. The bizarre finale of the movie is very simplistic and feels horribly rushed; breaking the pace of the story in a very bad way. Still, even when the rushed ending damages the movie a lot, at least it gives an idea of what Buñuel's intentions with the film were.
While the movie was never completed the way Buñuel desired, "Simón del Desierto" is equally as good as the master's better known films, and it also offers the chance to understand the ideology of the man known as "master of surrealism". The excellent performances, Figueroa's beautiful photography and Buñuel's superb direction are definitely the ingredients for a masterpiece, and this modest movie, incomplete as it is, it's definitely one. 8/10
This film is maybe one of the best films that Buñuel ever made although not among the most popular. Why? Because the production was shot faster than fast and the money ran out so the film couldn't complete the screenplay and art direction is poor. Besides there is the cultural fact, you need some religious background (Catholic if possible) to understand the irony of the film and the references. Humour differs from drama mainly in it's strong connection with time and environment while the latter is more transcultural and timeless. Buñuel had a deep religious knowledge although he lacked faith. The reason why the rock scene is so is that Buñuel didn't like rock. Sometimes people prefer Buñuel's French films because they look more glamorous, the caracters are more sophisticated and wearing richer clothes. Anyway I think the core of his filmography are his 'hispanic' films and the first ones ('l'age d'or', 'le chien andalou', Él, Los Olvidados, Viridiana, Tristana,...).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Simon Of The Desert' was made in between two of Bunuel's most admired movies 'Diary Of A Chambermaid' and 'Belle De Jour'. It rarely gets mentioned but I think it's one of Bunuel's most entertaining movies. Claudio Brook and Silvia Pinel who had both appeared in 'The Exterminating Angel' star. Brook (who later appeared in the astonishing Mexican nunsploitation classic 'Alucarda') plays the saintly Simon who denies himself earthy pleasures and stands on top of a tall pillar. Pinal (best remembered for the title role in Bunuel's classic 'Viridiana') plays The Devil, who tries various tricks and arguments to tempt the self-righteous Simon, culminating in an unexpected trip into the future. I believe I'm right in saying that the financing ran out making this movie 45 minutes instead of a full length feature. I don't think that was a bad thing, it just goes for the right length, never outstaying its welcome. It's typical Bunuel full of witty surprises and black comedy. I enjoyed it very much.
The strange and unforgettable conclusion of Luis Bunuel's classic Simon of the Desert sneaks up on viewers so quickly that most react with some kind of surprise or shock that the film has come to an end. Only forty-five minutes, the story of the pillar-perching ascetic defies the conventions of the short film format and unfolds like a fully developed feature. Laugh-out-loud hilarious, the movie bursts with inventive visual gags and clever writing, along with Bunuel's trademark knack for knockout surrealist images. But it doesn't stop there; Bunuel's direction is a tour-de-force (I love the dizzying angles from Simon's lofty elevation intercut with the views of the people below).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Here is one of the ultimate tales in Christian parody-parables: Luis
Bunuel, who partially made a career out of ridiculing (though in good
dramatic/comedic measure) the church, made this film about a man (Simon
of the title) who stands a-top a column to get closer to God. He gains
the total attention and praise (and prayer) of the locals, who visit
him daily. But a problem confronts him in the form of Satan, or rather
a sultry seductress, bringing him temptations galore. When she finally
brings her torment upon him to the ultimate, it takes him to the most
unusual of places (in particular unusual for a Bunuel film, who mostly
has his films of this period set in the early 20th or 19th century).
This is indeed one of the director's most carefully controlled and sometimes cringe-inducing black comedies, one that starts off so dramatically and sincerely I thought I was watching a different Bunuel- it's at first reverent and thoughtful, and if I was a Christian I would've been very moved. But as the story then progressed I noticed the utter absurdity of it all- in a way this is like a long Monty Python sketch only done with a boat-load more of subtlety to Simon's plight. This is a man in total conflict, portrayed well by Claudio Brook, very straight-faced or trying to through it all. The Devil as well, Silvia Pinal, is excellent in eliciting these dark emotions out of Simon, who has to be literally a pillar of strength for these people.
The climax of the film, which you will know if you read the film's plot summary here, is one of the superb strokes of genius in any film from Bunuel- at first sight of what he does in his transition of the story is outrageous (in the best possible way), then when it settles into its manic drive of the sequence it's hilarious, then exhilarating, and then finally something that is underlying in many of Bunuel's films- hipness. It's a whole collision of emotions that come with this scene, and it works as a fitting end to this strange, funny allegory-cum-satire of quasi-religious figures and their worshipers. If you find this film in your video store or browsing around online, it's worth to check out for a 45 minute view into the mind of the religious side of Bunuel: wicked, knowing, and in an ironic and touching way very understanding of what these people went through in those old times and what continues today in decadence.
This surrealist film is based on St. Simon Stylites who lived circa
A.D. 400. He was a ragged ascetic (well played by a bearded Claudio
Brook) who spent thirty-seven years atop a seventy-foot pillar
preaching to Christian flocks and avoiding temptation . As he is
tempted by the devil (a beauty Silvia Pinal) under various forms.
This rare movie is largely considered a Luis Buñuel's masterpiece. It's a comic parable about a tattered anchorite with some humor and hilarious criticism to Catholic Church. After returning his native country, Spain, by making 'Viridiana' but this film was prohibited on the grounds of blasphemy, then Buñuel with his screenwriter Julio Alejandro go back Mexico where realizes in low budget 'Simon of the desert' and produced by Gustavo Alatriste. Good and atmospheric cinematography by excellent Mexican cameraman Gabriel Figueroa. Religious music for a pilgrim hymn and of course 'the drums of Calanda', Luis Buñuel's location of birth . This movie won deservedly the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Venice Film Festival. Nice strange story for Luis Buñuel aficionados, being hauled by some reviewers as one of the best short film - forty minutes- ever made. Rating : Above average, worthwhile watching.
The funding for this gleefully blasphemous feature was pulled before the film was completed, resulting in an abrupt and not quite satisfying ending. Still, what's left is a little slice of heaven (pun intended) with some of its directors most direct and powerful attacks on the clergy he made a career of hating. Bunuel here presents us with an ascetic so self-involved that he declines to embrace his own mother; he restores the hands to a peasant who immediately uses them to strike his own child; he prides himself on eating only lettuce, mentioning it often and to anyone who will listen. "Simon" is a good-looking film, too, with a visual landscape that echoes its protagonist's austerity and startling surreal touches -- such as a coffin that slides through the desert scrub to the base of the column atop which Simon spends his years -- that recall the glory days of "L'Age d'Or." It might have been a masterpiece had Bunuel been allowed the full scope of his vision; it's a major film as is. 8/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It may be flawed slightly and only deserve a 9 1/2 but there are many
wonderful and very funny things going on here: the way the austere
atmosphere established at the beginning soon shows it's actual absurd
nature, the weird atonal renderings of the religious tunes, the sudden
appearances and transformations of the Devil, the gags - like the
coffin swiftly rolling across a field to the accompaniment of modern
military drumbeats (fine counterpoint to the tone of religious piety),
the sly dialog. In answer to some peasants seeking guidance in his
saintliness, Simone responds "Oh ye, poor of body and mind...".
Gabriel Figueroa was one of the cinema's greatest cameramen and his work shines here. The high angle views from the pedestal give a great visual thrust to both Simon's high-mindedness and lofty contempt. The clarity and austerity of the black and white shooting cozily underscore a lucid exposition on the futility of asceticism.
The film starts out looking like a serious paean set in the 1400's, with period costumes and music; and ends mid 20th century, in a post beatnik dive . The transforming cut takes us straight to the the denouement. In it's abruptness and the length of time leaped through, it is maybe one of the most ambitious cuts ever effected in film (along with Kubrick's jump at the beginning of "Space Oddysey" from the tossed bone/weapon in ape-ancestor times to the gracefully waltzing space ship in 2001). Some see this as a defect made necessary by the sudden disappearance of financial support. Yet great directors know how to use the inherent flexibility of film to manipulate the spectator in time and space, to bolster their art, even when things turn out unexpectedly.
Though it might have been better at full feature length, Bunuel did a wonderful job with the sudden ending. Even if it is jarring, the film still feels quite complete. Perhaps it's even a blessing - whoops, no pun intended - especially today in this era of films that last two plus hours followed by a half hour of credits. (Why not make a film about the making of the credits on a ultra long movie like "lord of the rings"?) Maybe the abruptness even reinforces the message of futility in that the devil wins earlier than one usually expects in mainstream length movies. Recall that other Bunuel works are seldom overly long and a few of his early films were also quite short (L'Age d'Or, 60 minutes, Tierra sin Pan, 30m, Chien Andalou, 16 m), yet very effective.
As mentioned in a few posts, Bunuel, and especially this film (also Milky Way and Phantom of Liberty) is without question an important inspiration for the Monty Python anti-clerical themes. While Python, which is dry British made-for-TV shtick, can be quite funny in its way, Bunuel's work is far richer in visual style, imagination and execution. It is some of the most intelligent and satisfying filmaking one can see.
That Simone's fall is represented by a trip to a 60's disco-tech may not necessarily mean that the disco symbolizes sin. It may instead perhaps be telling us that even if we don't have many ascetics anymore, modern taste can be so dreadful that we have our own hell on earth. Really too bad that this little gem is so hard to find, when we can easily have high quality digital clones of many overlong monstrosities.
For those who see this film, or Bunuel, as trivial, overrated or pretentious, perhaps, like Simone, you too excrete dryly.
Simon of the Desert (1965)
**** (out of 4)
Bizarre "religious" film from Luis Bunuel is one of the best I've seen from him. Simon (Claudio Brook) climbs a column in the desert to be closer to God but soon has Satan try to tempt him with earthly pleasures. To give anything else away would ruin a few twists and turns along the way but I was pleasantly surprised with this little short. Bunuel has become one of my favorite directors but I find watching his religious films to be very frustrating because he either goes over the top with what I find stupid or I feel he spends way too much time trying to make points but everything here worked pretty well with me. The black humor mixed in with the messages was a great touch and Bunuel did a terrific job with all the temptation scenes. The scene with the nude woman trying to tempt Simon was brilliantly done.
The ascetic religious Simón (Claudio Brook) believes he is a sinner and
decides to self-inflict a sacrifice, living like a hermit on the top of
a pedestal in the middle of the desert to be closer to God and resist
the temptations of the world. His followers are peasants and travelers
that believe that Simón is a saint capable of performing miracles and
they crowd to hear his speeches. However, Satan (Silvia Pinal) tries to
tempt him with the pleasures of the world.
In accordance with the cover of the VHS, Buñuel inspired in a Christian ascetic saint called Saint Simeon Stylites that lived for thirty-seven years on a small platform on the top of a pillar to parody his story with "Simon of the Desert" and criticize religion and believers with a witty humor. The unexpected plot point is a great and funny surprise with a completely different environment, but what else could the viewer expect from the master of the surrealism? This is the first time that I see this movie that has probably inspired Monty Python's "Life of Brian" and Alanis Morissette playing God in "Dogma". My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Simon do Deserto" ("Simon of the Desert")
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