As acts of humility go, a man putting himself on a pedestal for 39 years seems a little counterintuitive. Yet the contradiction doesn’t seem to occur to characters involved in Luis Bunuel’s 1965 film Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto), a key component of the film’s effective, understated comedy.
We join Simon, the 5th century Syrian saint (Claudio Brook), as a wealthy local is presenting him with an even higher column. As a crowd eagerly follows him in his stroll from one column to another, his mother pleads with him to stay with her. Of course, he tells her, his work is more important, and he ascends.
People pray for miracles—Simon astonishingly restores a man’s severed hands. The man seems momentarily pleased but then immediately starts arguing with his wife and kids about housework that needs doing. A couple guys who’d come to see a miracle that day lose interest and start talking about lunch. Of course, this is all part of the standard reason offered as to why Jesus didn’t dispense miracles like candy; it’s counterproductive to faith. Or “there’s no pleasing some people,” as the slightly better joke in Life of Brian on the same topic goes.
Simon’s experience really starts to look like Christ’s temptation in the desert when Satan shows up played by a delightfully mischievous Silvia Pinal, a far cry from the pious, wouldbe nun she played in Bunuel’s Viridiana. She skips around in an anachronistic school girl uniform and flashes Simon her goods. She’s pretty great.
Originally intended to be part of an anthology film, Pinal was unable to secure cooperation from other directors of Bunuel’s stature. As she explains in an interview included in the Criterion edition, she went to Frederico Fellini and Jules Dassin, both of whom wanted to cast their wives in roles intended for Pinal. It’s too bad, I would have liked to have seen the full film. I wonder if it would’ve been Pinal’s Satan in Job and maybe Genesis. Simon of the Desert, at 45 minutes, is pretty good as it is, though.
Simon of the Desert is available on The Criterion Channel.