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SIMON OF THE DESERT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal
Director:  Luis Bunuel
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  45 Minutes
Release Date:  February 10, 2009

ďWhat's this dance called?Ē

Film ****

Whatís a running time between friends?  45 minutes may not a feature make in our modern way of thinking, but if youíre a filmmaker the caliber of Luis Bunuel, you can say a lot in a short amount of time.

After all, Bunuel made one of the most legendary and discussed pictures of all time in his debut work Un Chein Andalou.  That film, running about 18 minutes, contained more memorable and iconic images than many movies six times in length.  His second film, LíAge DíOr, barely crossed the hour mark, but was potent enough to be banned for decades.

Simon of the Desert was released in 1965, and the truncated running time might be owing to an initial idea to make it the first part of a trilogy based loosely on the life of Saint Simon Stylites with a pair of other renowned directors.  It never materialized because other interested filmmakers, including Federico Fellini, wanted to recast their own wives in the role of the devil played by Silvia Pinal. 

Whatever the reason, Simon of the Desert hasnít gotten as much attention as it should because of its length.  And thatís unfortunate, because as mentioned, a director like Luis Bunuel can make the most out of three quarters of an hour.

A confessed atheist, Bunuel nevertheless exhibited a fascination with religion in many of his pictures, and Catholicism in particular.  Simon of the Desert was indeed inspired by the life of an actual Saint, but how many parallels to reality are actually presented in the film is something I canít comment on, not knowing a great deal about the real Saint Simon.  I am, however, willing to wager that the real Saint experienced nothing like what Simon (Brook) goes through in the bizarre and imaginatively twisted finale.

Simon is presented as a dutiful man who, as the picture opens, has spent six years, six months and six days atop a pillar in the desert, offering penance and devotion to God.  The Church doesnít seem to quite know what to make of him.  They offer him Holy Orders at one point, but Simon refuses, feeling unworthy of the honor.

Others come from all around to see the holy man and ask for his prayers and for healing.  One young mother asks for Simonís intervention on behalf of her husband, who had his hands chopped off for stealing and can now no longer work to feed his family.  Simon agrees to pray, and prayer sometimes leads to miracles.  But miracles donít always get the appreciation they deserve.

Simon has an enemy, and itís no less than Satan himself.  The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape, and does so in the form of the lovely Silvia Pinal, who appears regularly to tempt Simon away from his devotion and down from his pedestal in strange and sometimes amusing ways.  She tempts him with flesh, with trying to destroy his reputation, and even by trying to confuse him as to the nature of God.

I canít give away how it ends, because the ending is pure Bunuel, meaning itís unexpected and surreal.  Which makes commenting on the possible message difficultÖmaybe Bunuel was simply telling Simon heís seen the future, and itís not all itís cracked up to be.  Then again, Bunuel rarely encouraged audiences trying to take messages away from his movies.  But thatís only made us try harder to discern messages over the years.

Bunuel was that rare creation, perhaps not unlike Clint Eastwood, who made his best movies in his advanced years.  The 60s and 70s would showcase the director at his most honed, satirical, and unbridled in imagination, and in those decades he produced some of cinemaís most talked-about, original, and acclaimed films.  Perhaps Simon of the Desert with its short running time is a perfect link between his comeback films Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel toward the movies that would really cement his career, like Belle de Jour and That Obscure Object of Desire.

However you want to look at it, Simon of the Desert is a simple, strange, funny and biting masterpiece that didnít require an epic running time to showcase what a director with a singular vision could accomplish. 

Video ***

The black and white photography is rather striking, given the barren landscapes.  The print seems quite clean overall, with minimal grain and aging artifacts, and even remarkable contrast and clarity in some of the darker shots.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is undemanding, but perfectly suitable, with minimal dynamic range but seemingly clean clear dialogue throughout.

Features **1/2 

The extras include a 56 minute documentary on Bunuelís Mexican period, a new interview with star Silvia Pinal, and a booklet containing an essay and a transcript of an interview with Bunuel.

Summary:

It turns out 45 minutes is enough time to acquaint yourself with a great film from a master director.  But if youíre like me, it wonít be the only time you spend 45 minutes with Simon of the Desert.

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