Tuesday, February 10, 2009

ON DVD : SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965)

The devil is a woman. This we know. And while Josef Von Sternberg beat every other envious filmmaker to the punch by giving such a caption to the face of Marlene Dietrich, Luis Bunuel has convinced me that if "the evil one" were to ever take seductive human shape on earth, it would be in the form of a young Silvia Pinal. Sure, Dietrich can fling you across the floor with those eyes after already knocking you to the ground with those lips, but Silvia Pinal had the kind of full-figured and fancy free va-va-voom confidence that could make a man go pigeon-toed in an instant.

And see... I've already let her corrupt this post of mine that was supposed to focus on Luis Bunuel's Simon of the Desert not the voluptuous female figure. Yes, Pinal does play a large part in that brief, forty-five minute comedy, but Simon of the Desert is packed with so many absurd jokes, Catholic satire, and mixed-message humanity, that if you can't shake Pinal's recurring sexuality out of your head...

... then you just might miss out on the total whole. Knowing Bunuel, that was probably deliberate.

The conflicting ideals of self-purity vs. self-interest are at the heart of Simon of the Desert. Simon (Claudio Brook looking like a stern-browed Richard Burton), has given up the pleasures and pleasantries of waking life in order to touch god. He does this by propping himself up on a cement pillar for six plus years, rejecting material possessions and the temptation of tasty food and drink. This is a joke in itself. Bunuel pokes fun at the irony of a man who claims self-sacrifice, yet still has the ego to hoist himself up upon a pedestal for passers-by to fawn over.

Because Luis Bunuel so frequently used Catholicism as the target for much of his own on-screen humor and aggression, what is often overlooked is that the director was never vain enough to exclude himself from those criticisms, nor was it his philosophy that Catholicism be held singularly responsible for many of the social inequalities portrayed in his films. Bunuel was raised a Catholic, so that was simply his personal religious frame of reference. And though he often referred to himself as an atheist, Bunuel was so enamored of the rituals, teachings, and customs of religion that it wouldn't be surprising if some kind of spiritual connection existed in his heart the day he died.


Simon of the Desert itself contains many examples of the double-sided regard Bunuel held for religious teachings. In one instance, Bunuel is teasing about the chastity of a young priest who incidentally finds himself awkwardly tempted by the full, bulging teat of a goat, while in another, he shows the unflinching generosity of Simon when a fellow priest tries to engage him in a tricky game of material ownership. These contrasting, lighting-quick scenarios never let up, which is why Simon of the Desert - even at such a short length - is so topically dense.

My favorite thing about Simon of the Desert is the way Bunuel knocks down religious myths without crushing them. So often, either through Biblical teachings or in a King Vidor movie, we're taught that religious figures are more regal, proper, and ethically balanced than the rest of us. But Bunuel bucks that notion. In an arms-outstretched profound moment, Simon is seen forgetting lines to a divine prayer; after a miracle is performed, a crowd disperses as if the show is over and it's time to go home; a quartet of priests discuss how they really don't feel like praying with Simon even though they know that they should.

In other words, Saint Christopher picked his nose and farted just like you and I do. And, you know what, if the holy Saint Simon happens to sneak a peak at the boobies of Satan, he isn't being unchaste, he's just being a man.

3 comments:

bill r. said...

My favorite thing about Simon of the Desert is the way Bunuel knocks down religious myths without crushing them.

That seems to be his MO, which is why I don't get all bent out of shape while watching his films. I'm not the most religious guy in the world, but I'm not an atheist, and more importantly I respect religion and religious people, and I hate when Christians (I single them out, as currently in this country they take the brunt of it) get mocked simply for being Christians.

Which is not to say that Bunuel doesn't mock, but he mocks from a place of respect. If that makes any sense.

Fox said...

Bill-

That makes total sense. And I think it's something we lack in today's culture. Instead we get people like Bill Maher who are authoritarian in their opinions.

And Christianity is simply the easiest and most politically convenient target of all the religions.

As I said to a friend the other day, "an obnoxious in-your-face atheist is just as irritating as an obnoxious in-your-face Christian." It's the "obnoxiousness" that irritates me, not the beliefs.

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