Simon of the Desert
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 45 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Spanish
MSRP: $ 24.95
Release Date: February 10, 2009
Review Date: February 3, 2009
World renowned atheist Luis Buñuel brings his examination of faith and temptation to the screen in Simon of the Desert, a haunting religious allegory that condenses the trials of faith into a marvelous three quarter hour short feature. Yes, it’s filled with his legendary surrealistic touches, too, and as this was Buñuel’s last-ever film shot in Mexico, it makes a fitting coda to a film career there that would stand him in remarkable stead for the series of movies which would be produced in the future.
Ascetic priest Simon (Claudio Brook) has placed himself atop a towering pillar in the middle of the desert where he worships God and regularly heals the infirm, a practice he‘s been judiciously following for the last eight years, eight months, and eight days. While he stands solitary on his pedestal, he’s tempted by any number of human and spiritual temptations: for food, for uncharitable thoughts toward some of those below, for giving into pride in showing up lies of other priests jealous of the devotion of his followers. But the major temptations are from Satan himself who either possesses humans to do his bidding or disguises himself in a series of astonishing manifestations (often actress Silvia Pinal).
Quite different from the usual pious tone in Hollywood religious films, Simon of the Desert finds Buñuel in a rather playful mood. His central character is not above making catty comments about the ignorant or ungrateful among his flock, and the surreal moments (a casket rapidly sliding across the desert, a jet plane soaring overhead which takes us into the film‘s final ironic and ultimately revelatory sequence) are as usual unforgettable. Yes, his defeatist attitude toward the sincerely pious is fairly predictable, and his ending isn’t quite as satisfying as it might have been. It’s still a haunting examination of religious devotion with some iconic images. And Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is breathtaking: a sandstorm midway through the film is one of cinema’s most beautifully composed and shot images.
Two actors are pretty much the whole show. The film was originally planned as a three part anthology starring actress Silvia Pinal, and though the last two parts were never made, this short film showcases her in a variety of eccentric masquerades as the devil. As the sorely tempted Simon, Claudio Brook looks and acts every inch the sainted martyr, that is, up to that last sequence where he proves himself a hipster who can appreciate a groove with the best of them. In much smaller roles, Hortensia Santoveña as Simon’s long-suffering mother and Enrique del Castillo as a man with no hands hoping for a miracle make momentarily good impressions.
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered faithfully in this transfer, slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s customary fashion. Though the opening credit sequence appears to have been overly processed to remove dirt and flickers a bit, the remainder of the film is simply gorgeous with excellent contrast delivering a grayscale that would be hard to top. Only a fairly long black scratch along the right side of the frame ruins an otherwise top-notch video transfer. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 8 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is burdened by moderate hiss for much of the running time, only occasionally backing off into a lighter volume but never fully going away. Otherwise, dialogue, music, and sound effects all blend well into the center channel.
As a “budget priced” Criterion disc, there are still some very worthwhile extras.
A Mexican Buñuel is a beautifully made 55 ½-minute documentary on the director’s memorable string of Mexican-produced films. Directed by Emilio Maillé, the documentary features a rich sampling of film clips and stills from his memorable works made there between 1947 and 1965. Presented in 4:3 and with a very effective Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround audio track, this documentary alone is worth the price of the set.
Actress Silvia Pinal is featured in a 2006 interview in which she explains why only one piece of the proposed three-part film anthology made it to the screen. The interview is presented in 4:3 and runs for 6 ½ minutes.
The enclosed 30-page booklet features many stills from the film as well as a scholarly essay on the movie by film author Michael Wood and an excerpt from a book of compiled interviews with Luis Buñuel which especially address the movie Simon of the Desert.
Beautifully produced, well acted, and with some fascinating food for thought concerning religious devotion and enticement, Simon of the Desert is a highly recommended treat and would make a wonderful introduction to the films of Luis Buñuel for the uninitiated.