Simon of the Desert Review

Luis Bunuel’s incomplete and final Mexican film gets the Criterion treatment…

The Film

I am a great believer that in the end people do what they want to do. However hard they protest, people end up in positions which suit their personal disposition. Sure they try to wrap it up in the idea that it happened for a reason, or because of a choice they had made, but people end up the way their characters cause them to. I recently read about Charles Bronson who has been kept in a solitary cell in the bowels of the earth because of the threat he poses to others – Charles has never been real good at sharing. It made me think that despite his legal incarceration where Bronson is means he has a wholly controlled environment away from his personal hell of other people.Simon Stylites was a man who stood on a pillar in order to be closer to God. He deprived himself of comfort and the company of others, and he literally forced others to look up to his example by mounting the pillar and staying there. Being the object of admiration and away from the people who were taken by his asceticism presumably allowed him to endure his existence somewhat easier than being amongst the world and forced to deal face to face with disciples and hangers on.

Luis Bunuel’s short film is not specifically about this man who was made a saint but it enjoys accepting some of the passion-like stories that have followed similar saintly types. His Simon is constantly taunted and challenged by the devil in the gorgeous form of Sylvia Pinal and he endures despite temptation and the way of the world. Still though Bunuel’s Simon is a man, a man who dislikes naive young priests and privately despairs at the people below. For all of his self denial, Simon’s efforts mean that he finds himself gladly apart from the people he may find harder to endure than the privations of his self-imposed trials.So for Bunuel, Simon is an earnest and honest man for whom the real world is too much. Whilst he fights off the temptations and tricks of the Devil throughout, he is eventually taken into the present to a discotheque where he is shown a future completely antithetical to the life he has led. There others dance whilst he watches from the sidelines, still trying to be above it all.

Simon of the Desert was intended as part of a trio of films for which Fellini and others were approached. The other films never got made and this short piece stood alone and incomplete as funds ran out, which seems both ironic and appropriate. From a modern perspective, a saint who believed he was closer to God by being elevated is ripe for satire, and Bunuel does this with great skill whilst reserving his ammunition for the clergy who congregate at Simon’s feet. Claudio Brook is as excessively serious as necessary as Simon, and Pinal flirts and tempts with great verve and comeliness.Perhaps the moral of the piece is that you can’t stop the modern world of sin and fun, or the point is how silly an example like Saint Simon seems when we are all so used to a life of convenience. Or perhaps there is no point other than how ridiculous this all seems. What matters is that there is plenty to enjoy and unless self flagellation is your thing, then I’d be surprised if you were offended by the gentle ribbing of religion.

The incomplete nature of the project is only obvious in the final reel when the switch to the modern day isn’t seamless. What was finished is an oddly witty and effective piece, and a sign that his Mexican adventure helped the director to truly set the tone for his remaining highly celebrated European films.

Transfer and Sound

The 4:3 transfer is very sharp with excellent handling of shade, and a level of detail that knocked me out. The print itself is not blemish free with one or two damaged frames that are unavoidable, plenty of worrying around the edge of the frame and some marks and lines which remain even after restoration. This though is a very nice, slightly windowboxed, transfer with edges looking natural, and black levels being very strong.The mono soundtrack is well mastered with source wear and tear only occasionally apparent and nothing in the way of distortion. Voices and music are reproduced faithfully in the single mono track and the subtitles are easily read, optional and very sensible.

Discs and Special Features

The region one disc is dual layer and comes with a booklet in the disc case. Chief amongst the extras on the disc is an interview with Sylvia Pinal and an hour long documentary. A Mexican Bunuel is fairly self explanatory, it covers the great director’s film making in his adopted homeland from commercial jobs through to the growing development of the satirical and surreal work that his late period would see. It includes interviews with colleagues, members of the literati like Carlos Fuentes, and the man himself. There are clips from many of the films with most time given over to Los Olividados, a film branded unpatriotic by exactly the kind of people the director enjoyed annoying. Fittingly the piece concludes with aborted modern day attempts to remove the pillar from where Bunuel shot Simon of the Desert.

The booklet includes an interview with Bunuel where he talks specifically about his relationship with religion and this film. Bunuel is entertaining and explains that one image he wanted to capture in this story was the idea of excrement dripping down the pillar like wax down a candle! Michael Wood contributes an essay on the film which places the film as the middle part of a trilogy which ended with The Milky Way. He quotes Pauline Kael’s advocacy of this work over Bunuel’s later films and explains the context of the film’s making admirably.

The final extra is an interview with Sylvia Pinal from 2006 where she frankly admits her role in stopping the portmanteau movie being made by demanding she starred in the other segments too and celebrates Bunuel. She states that this was the film she enjoyed the most of her collaborations with him and talks about the nudity in the film. Pinal is lively and good company.


An excellent short film that doesn’t suffer from not being completed as the director had envisaged. Simon of the Desert is warm, affectionate but razor sharp and Criterion have delivered a lovely transfer and solid extras.

John White

Updated: Mar 21, 2009

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