It is typical of every religion to preach that self-sacrifice is the path to find God. That giving up all the "pleasures" of the world will purify man. Wonder where those teachings came from, but it is quite a common trait, no matter what religion. Embrace asceticism, rid yourself of the so-called "worldly pleasures" or "sins" and achieve your spiritual or religious goals! The ultimate path to salvation is here!
The Catholic teachings are no different, and Luis Bunuel has always been highly critical of organized religion. He has dedicated so many of his films as tools to launch razor sharp, scathing attacks on these beliefs or the Church in general.
Loosely based on the real life story of the 5th century ascetic Saint Simeon Stylites, who spent 39 years atop a column ,"Simon of the Desert" is no exception. Picture a bearded monk, Simon (Claudio Brook), devoting his life to ascetic ways. He has already spent six years, six weeks and six days atop a pillar in the middle of the desert, praying for spiritual purification. He has gained a good amount of followers; mostly peasants, some priests and other village folk who believe that he has been blessed with special powers. They come to him for help or deliver some food from time to time. He is offered a brand new, taller pillar as a token of their faith and respect for his sacrifice. Simon continues his act of good faith, keeps delivering sermons and can even seemingly perform miracles.....
Sounds like a serious, religious, deeply meaningful, preachy biography of a Saint? Not in the Luis Bunuel universe! Trust Bunuel to turn something that sounds very deep and heavy into a darkly humorous, absurd mock-fest that is unrelenting and uncompromising in its ways so much so as to scandalize half the audiences who could be believers!
So this whole God-fearing stuff takes a dramatic turn as some of the priests and peasants start getting critical of Simon and think it is all in vain. Simon is taken to be an arrogant man by some, and a few others think he is faking it. Simon himself begins to deem his actions futile on several occasions. What's more...the Devil shows up too, and tries to "tempt" Simon in his many ways by appearing in the form of a beautiful woman (Silvia Pinal) in an attempt to seduce Simon out of his saintly ways! Will Simon yield to the temptation?
Bunuel takes only about 45 minutes to drive his point across and does it with his masterful touch. Accompanied by Gabriel Figueroa's beautiful camerawork, Bunuel makes unpredictable transitions from realism to surrealism to hilarious absurdism all in the miniscule time frame that was available to him. Apparently Gustavo Alatriste, the producer could no longer fund the film for some reasons and that is how Bunuel was forced to abruptly end the film (with a bizarre ending that has been criticized in several write-ups, but do not be misled...it does have its place..and its own charm based on the interpretation), while in reality he wished to add more material to the film. Whatever the reasons, the end result is a highly original, savagely funny and one of the most eccentric works of cinema from the twisted mind of Luis Bunuel.
Pay especially careful attention to certain scenes in which Simon mutters random religious ramblings on seeing some ordinary creatures like an insect (that has absolutely no idea of what is going on!) and later tries to do the same with an inanimate object but gives up! Or the scene in which Simon performs a miracle and gives a cripple a new pair of hands...and the eventual consequence of it! Or that brutally funny scene in which some of the priests don't seem to know the meaning of a particular Biblical reference. Every scene drips a lot of really clever writing....and there is no question that this is an exemplary work of genius from the great director.
Bunuel's pick of actors add to the amazing experience with their superb performances, especially Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal and the midget Jesus Fernandez.
"Simon of the Desert" is the kind of film that leaves you wanting more. Another 45 minutes of running time perhaps?
Check out this masterpiece...do not waste anymore time.