Simon of the Desert is the final entry in an unofficial trilogy of 1960s films in which Luis Buñuel, with the help of Silvio Panal and Claudio Brook (who, respectively, play Satan and the titular saint) and producer Gustavo Alatriste, takes aim at religion and the culture surrounding it. The first, Viridiana (1961), was so blasphemous that Buñuel was exiled from Spain and had to continue his work in Mexico. The Exterminating Angel, which followed a year later, still had reasonably high production values, but by the time Buñuel got around to Simon in 1965, he had made a film in the interim and a lack of capital forced him to abandon anything resembling a set.
This ended up being a good thing, as the story of a 5th century son of a saint who, from atop a pillar in the desert, blesses, preaches, and educates priests and peasants while seeking spiritual purity gains a sense of universal space by the lack of any set to use as a reference. The desert is just as important a character as Simon, granting universality to the story of unthinking followers and making Buñuel’s surrealist edge especially easy to follow.
Simon has been up on that pillar for six years, six months, and six days (that’s 666, folks), so if you are unfamiliar with Buñuel, you should quickly be tipped off as to whether he is satirizing religion or glorifying it. But Buñuel is usually subtle and visual in what he has to say about religion. Simon is certainly a commendable soul, genuinely looking for spirituality and trying to help out his people—in one of the film’s early scenes, he gives a repentant thief new hands. The only question is whether his work is futile, and his approach—that is, living on a pillar, refusing to eat or drink—is a bit excessive, and whether his people truly deserve his help. But that’s not really the biggest concern here, rightfully so. Instead, Buñuel takes aim at those who have cheated on religion instead of using it for its intended purpose. When that man gets his hands back, the first thing he does is slap his daughter. A peasant complains that his gift was not met with monetary compensation, and before that, the congregation presents him with a taller pillar for him to stand on as a gift, a brilliant metaphor for the growing distance between a religious savior and the people.
Simon’s own actions are not ignored entirely however, as his three-visit battle with Satan, who takes the form of a woman is the closest thing to a traditional story on display here. This saga gives us a look into Simon’s motivation and thoughts, but a few confrontations with The Devil and punishing a couple members of the congregation are, at most, a light poke at the rigidity of religious doctrine, far from a scathing attack on religion itself. Simon of the Desert takes more aim at those who abuse religion, but these hints at Simon himself want to be more developed than they are. Still, nearly every shot of Simon is from a low-angle, emphasizing his authority. It’s a shame that the film, at just 45 minutes, does not find time to ask whether Simon is obligated to listen to his people or whether he should be more selective with his miracles and guidance and more forgiving with minor offenses. The confrontations with Satan, in her three different forms, do not shed light on this, so it passes away as the most undeveloped subtext of a film desperately trying to make a statement.
Holistically, then, the statement is not as declarative or powerful as it should be, but what we do get is far from lacking, and the surrealist touch and Buñuel’s fantastic manipulation of space bestow the film with layers of unspoken meaning. That the film is shot so naturalistically and realistically and yet still emerges with such surrealism is quite remarkable, and that trait is delivered here as well as it is in either Viridiana or The Exterminating Angel before it. There’s a lot trying to be said here, more than is actually said, but it’s fascinating visually and intelligent politically, so while it is not one of Buñuel’s essential films, it will fascinate his fans and please anyone else with a taste for surrealist or art-house cinema.