According to the wonderful book Objects of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel by Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent, the inspiration for Simon of the Desert came from a 13th century book recommended to the director by the great poet Federico Garcia Lorca. It contained the story of St. Simon Stylites, an ascetic who stood on a column in the middle of the desert, and contained the quote, “Shit flowed down the column like wax drips from candles.” It also may have been inspired, in part, by the story of Saint Anthony, which had been chronicled by both the bishop Athanasius and Gustave Flaubert in The Temptation of St. Anthony (one of this writer’s favorite books). Whatever the case, Buñuel, who like Pasolini was a self-confessed atheist, invested most of his work with biblical and religious images, perhaps most notoriously in 1930’s L’age d’Or and 1961’s Viridiana. Yet neither of those films were proper preparation for Simon.
This 45-minute short film begins as Simon – atop his column now for six years, six months and six days – is presented with a new, higher-to-Heaven column by a family who he had miraculously cured of illness. The monks from a local monastery offer to make Simon a member of the priesthood, but he declines, declaring himself unworthy. He is content as an ascetic, blessing the peasants who come to him for miracles even though they seem nonplused by them. When Simon restores the hands of a man who had them cut off as punishment for thievery, the first thing the man does with his miraculous hands is to smack his young daughter on the side of the head.
Satan herself, played by Mexican movie siren (and Viridiana herself) Silvia Pinal, soon interrupts Simon’s peaceful prayer. At first, Satan takes the guise of a taunting little school girl in a sailor suit and black stockings and garters, begging Simon to abandon his prayer and join her in eternal sin, but he refuses. He continues his prayer undaunted by monks who try to discredit him, and the presence of his mother waiting in a small house below his column. He survives another Satanic visit, this time in the guise of a bearded, frog-exploding Jesus, but Satan finally comes to collect Simon in a coffin that glides along the desert as if motorized, to take Simon to a “black mass.”
It would ruin the ending to tell you what Buñuel’s idea of Hell is, but suffice to say it’s as funny as it is unexpected, and carries with it a whiff of apocalypse. The film recalls the surrealism of his earlier short work (L’age d’Or made a connection between Jesus and the Marquis de Sade), and possesses a wonderfully dry sense of humor that makes everyone, not just Simon, appear confounded by his or her reality. Above all else, it is a funny movie, one that in parts pre-figures the irreverence of Monty Python’s brilliant Life of Brian.
(Buñuel’s 1969 film The Milky Way should be mentioned here as well. A loosely constructed set of episodes about a pair of tramps on a pilgrimage to see the bones of St. James, the film gives way to a myriad of picaresque religious visions. The result is an extraordinary film, yet a difficult one to recommend: it is based on History of Spanish Heterodoxies and an eighty-odd volume 1888 history of the church. If you like comedy based on heresy and dogma, this is your film, but I defy most of the film’s many adherents to explain more than just a few scenes.)