1965’s Simon of the Desert opens deep in the Syrian desert, where a man named Simon (played by Claudio Brook) stands atop a column. He’s spent 6 years, 6 weeks, and 6 days at the top of that column. Simon spends his days praying, not only for himself but also the world. We’re told that he’s the son of St. Simeon Stylites, who spent 37 years atop a small column outside of Aleppo.
(Of course, St. Simeon died in 459 and Simon appears to be living in the 19th century so maybe Simon has been misinformed.)
Sometimes, people gather around the column and beg Simon to perform a miracle. Strangely, when Simon does what they want and heals an amputee, no one is particularly impressed or grateful. Occasionally, priests gather around the pole and offer to make Simon one of them. Simon, however, always refuses. He’s not worthy, he says. Plus, he feels that the local priest is a bit too vain.
What quickly becomes obvious is that, while Simon is a man of great faith, he’s also a bit of a self-righteous jerk. Simon is quick to pass judgment on those who come to stare at him but, at the same time, one gets the feeling that he would equally offended if nobody stared. Simon may claim that standing on the column has brought him closer to God but, over the course of the film, it’s only the devil (played by Silvia Pinal) who comes to visit him.
In order to taunt and tempt Simon, Satan takes on different forms. At one point, she appears as a teenage girl skipping across the desert. At another point, she appears as Jesus. Towards the end of the film, she rides a coffin across the desert. Simon proves to be stubborn in his faith, or at least he is until Satan offers him a glimpse of his future and the film’s present….
Directed by the Mexican surrealist Luis Bunuel, Simon of the Desert is a 45-minute look at faith, stupidity, and rock music. (That’ll make sense if you watch the film. It’s on YouTube.) An outspoken atheist, Bunuel goes beyond merely criticizing organized religion and instead further suggests that Simon is an idiot for spending six years praying to a God who doesn’t care about him. Bunuel does not even allow Simon to reach the status of “holy fool.” Instead, Simon is portrayed as being just a fool.
Not surprisingly for a Bunuel film, Simon of the Desert is full of striking images, from that coffin moving across the desert to Simon standing atop the column and waiting for some sort of sign. Claudio Brook and Silvia Pinal both give great performances and have enough chemistry that you can’t help but suspect that Simon and Satan might secretly be in love with each other. The film ends on a properly surreal note, one that suggests that the all the contemplation of the world cannot bring a stop to the inevitable dance of death.
Dream-like and sharply satiric, Simon of the Desert is a film that you won’t forget.