Simon of the Desert (1965, Luis Buñuel)

Simon of the Desert opens with the title character, played by Claudio Brook, getting a new pillar after six years on his first(?) one. He’s a priest doing penance (just general penance) and living his life in prayer atop a pillar, eating nothing but lettuce, drinking nothing but water, and a local rich guy appreciates Brook curing him of something so he gets Brook a new pillar.

Apparently the Devil (Silvia Pinal) agrees Brook’s resolve seems to be cracking—while he takes the new pillar, he doesn’t take a big blessing because he doesn’t deserve it and he also doesn’t give his ailing mother, played by Hortensia Santoveña, much comfort when she begs him for it; so Pinal starts showing up to tempt Brook away from his pillar, initially as a salacious school girl.

Desert is set in fourth century Syria, making Pinal’s school girl getup rather anachronistic but director Buñuel treats it just as mundanely as some of the miracles Brook is able to perform and it works. Especially as Pinal’s further disguises are a little less outrageous. At least as far as Brook is going to perceive them.

Most of Simon, which runs forty-five minutes (apparently intended to be in an anthology but there was no anthology), is Brook interacting with someone. Sometimes it’s Pinal, sometimes it’s other priests—never is it Santoveña, who has set up camp in view of the pillar and is always looking for some sign of regard from her son, which gets less and less probable as the runtime progresses. Buñuel has a couple really nice juxtaposed moments between Brook and Santoveña and we get some character development on it for Brook, but only until Pinal really starts trying hard to tempt him down.

Brook’s time alone on the pillar is mostly spent in prayer to a silent God; Pinal’s the only one who seems to be listening. There’s a little bit of voice over to get some of the character development done for Brook, but mostly it works into the dialogue between him and the supporting cast. Really good script from Buñuel and Julio Alejandro, especially when it comes to working in some echoed lines and how they play out in different contexts.

Buñuel’s direction is excellent—Gabriel Figueroa’s black and white photography is a lot flashier, even with the limited setting, just enabling the shot composition. And Carlos Savage’s editing is good too. The timing on the reaction shots between Brook and the people below is outstanding, especially when there’s some great shot at the end of it. There’s one big reveal sequence in particular where Buñuel, Figueroa, and Savage nail it so much the eventual—much larger scale—resolution can’t really compare, technically-speaking (while being a narrative win).

Simon of the Desert is an excellent forty-five minutes.

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