"I'm beginning to realize I don't realize what I'm saying..."
It was obvious before watching Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert that the greatest director of the surrealist movement loathed the Catholic church. I have yet to see a film by Buñuel that does not use iconoclastic visuals and unorthodox dialogue against the church. In that respect, Simon is no different. What is particularly interesting about this 45 minute masterpiece is the sharp contrast between the followers of religion and the religion itself - almost as if Buñuel was using this work as a type of pamphlet on what he viewed as dangerous in religion.
Simon is played stoically by Claudio Brook and is very loosely based on the Syrian 5th-century saint Simeon Stylites. He has stood for an astounding 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days atop a giant pillar in an attempt to show his loyalty to the Lord. This is the type of self-punishment that Buñuel believed belittled the loving message of Christ.
In an early scene - the ascetic Simon finally descends from his pillar - only to climb his ladder to the top of a higher pillar that has been gifted to him by local priests. Is Simon now standing closer to the heavens? Looking down on those less committed to the Lord? Or is this extreme isolation from the people on the ground an allusion to how Christians view the love message in comparison to the suffering of Jesus?
Buñuel was not necessarily anti-God, but rather anti-hypocrite. He
detested the masses of people who identified as Christians, yet focused
on all of the wrong aspects of the Message. Today - we call them social
conservatives. These are people who have inflated the suffering of
Christ to an almost masturbatory level of importance. They follow Christ
by not only stifling themselves, but also by stifling the rest of the
world. Would Jesus want His followers to painstakingly estrange themselves from society to prove their loyalty, or would He rather His people fill the world with love?
Simon performs a miracle in which he reattaches hands to a man who had had them severed for stealing. Inherently, this is an act of forgiveness and mercy over cruel justice. Almost immediately, the begging man uses his reattached hands to slap his child. This is a perfect example of Buñuel's wry sense of humor. Followers have become complacent in the message of Christ, while still doing what they can to reap the benefits of their religious fraternity. They have become detached from Christ's teachings while simultaneously perpetuating His pain.
But the followers are not the only ones who have lost the Message. Simon himself begins to doubt his own loyalties when the Devil (played by Buñuel-regular Silvia Pinal) comes to tempt him to the ground. She first appears as an innocent, perhaps unknowingly libidinous young girl, and is denied by Simon. In what might be the most surreal scene in the film, her second visit has her disguised as Jesus. The final visit sees the Devil gliding through the desert in a coffin - wearing nothing but a toga - with her naked left-breast cupped in hand.
Each of these visits from the Devil evoke a sense that the church has always been obsessed with the female body. In modern times this has not changed. The church longs to own the female form; they want to control it to endorse their message. It is very easy to keep holy men from having sex when their teachings imply that the female body is sin. Buñuel knows about this fixation, and playfully uses it as a way to tempt the titular character.
I will not spoil how it all ends, but I will say it is not the ending you might expect. Though the film is technically the third of an anti-religious trilogy - Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel - that was sparked after Buñuel's second exile from Spain to Mexico - Simon of the Desert is just as good when watched individually.
Simon of the Desert: A