No filmmaker despised the Catholic Church as much as Luis Buñuel, except maybe for Pier Paolo Pasolini, and yet both men would make two of the most important films about the life of Christ: the former Simon of the Desert and the latter The Gospel According to St. Matthew. In Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, a man slices a woman’s eye in half using a razorblade—a radical action that would introduce the world to one of its most incisive artistic voices. Buñuel would never live down Salvador Dalí’s famous incision, a struggle mirrored in the horrors faced by the figure at the center of Simon of the Desert, a 45-minute fable that ends with Satan (the great Silvia Pinal) finally seducing a martyr off a pillar in the desert, possibly set in the Middle Ages, and wheeling him to a modern ’60s disco club.
Critics often mistook Buñuel’s anti-clericism for a lack of spirituality, but Simon of the Desert is proof that no other living director understood and respected Christ’s role to society as deeply as he did. In The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson uses the postmodern sensation of violence to exploit the death of Christ and force a pathological connection between the man and his people. The film doesn’t ask Christians to transcend the sadomasochistic guilt often associated with Sunday service, instead augmenting it. Gibson reduces Christ to a blood-and-sweat abstraction, an act that trivializes the role of Christ in society and, in turn, further distances us from the man’s teachings. Simon of the Desert goes in the completely opposite direction, conflating asceticism and aestheticism to question both the relationship between Christ and his followers and filmmakers and their audiences—those who are watched and those who do the watching.
Both critics and fans of Simon of the Desert seem to think Buñuel condescends to the titular Simon (Claudio Brook), who has stood atop a pillar in the desert for six years, six months, and six days. But it’s obvious that Buñuel respects the man’s steadfastness and dedication to his cause in much the same way he admires the struggles of the Christ-like figure at the center of his equally brilliant Nazarín. Buñuel was a man of strong convictions, and while the director had no use for organized religion, his beef was never with God himself but the fickle, hypocritical masses (the “compassionate conservatives” if you will) that pretended to follow him. In Simon of the Desert, he evokes the wounds on Christ’s body and celebrates his teachings, but condemns those who, like Gibson, belittle his love by deepening his pain.
Simon of the Desert’s little Bible stories are twisted evocations of the dumbing down of faith by postmodern Christian anxieties and hang-ups. Throughout the film, a series of melodramas take place around the two pillars Simon sits atop. The martyr’s move from the first pillar to a considerably taller one by a group of priests evokes Buñuel’s belief that Christians are moving further and further away from Christ the more and more believers perpetuate and sell his suffering rather than his teachings. It’s amazing to think how well Simon of the Desert works as a criticism of Passion of the Christ, a film for those who are so transfixed by Christ’s crucifixion that they can’t see anything else.
Gibson’s evocation of the love between Mary and Christ in Passion of the Christ is heart-wrenching (thanks largely to Maia Morgenstern’s strikingly existential interpretation of Mary’s chaos), but Buñuel has problems with the flattened view of Mary in film, literature, and everyday life, one that Gibson’s film certainly doesn’t stray from. If Christ and his followers are far apart, then Mary is even further away. In Simon of the Desert, Simon’s mother lives in a tiny shack on the periphery of his pillars. She forces herself to speak but can’t, condemning herself to forever play the romantic, “sidelined” role of grieving mother assigned to her by the patriarchal authors of her (and her son’s) story.
Buñuel understands the church’s obsession with the female body—the desire to own it, control it, market it as an object of sin. In religious fetish films like Passion of the Christ, filmmakers like Gibson perpetuate the single-minded Catholic obsession with sex and the devil as a woman, an outmoded view Joseph von Sternberg grappled with in The Devil Is a Woman, which heavily influenced Buñuel’s last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Throughout Simon of the Desert, the devil attempts to seduce Simon with her sex, first as a tarty little girl, then as a seductress trapped inside a coffin, and finally as an androgynous Greek-like figure who bares her breasts. (It’s almost impossible not to think of Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl and the fury it summoned throughout our country’s Bible belt.)
Simon makes a man’s severed hands reappear, and almost as soon as he performs the miracle, the man proceeds to hit his daughter on the head for asking him if they are the same hands he had before. It’s a funny sequence, for sure, but Buñuel uses it to suggest that self-serving, fanatical Christians are taking God for granted. They’re no longer amazed by Christ’s capacity for kindness; worse yet, they pay lip service to his teachings when they’re inside his house, only to preach hate outside its doors. Simon loves everyone equally, even the prancing priest with the offensively tidy frock who condescends to a dwarf with a questionable relationship to a goat named Domitila, but that doesn’t stop the man from advising the priest to abandon his classist tendencies.
“Your asceticism is sublime,” says someone to Simon at one point. The same could be said about Buñuel’s no-frills aestheticism. Unlike the expensive desires of the bourgeois and the gaudy outfits often worn by priests at Sunday service, Buñuel shunned all things extravagant, and it shows in his images. Like Simon, Buñuel’s philosophy of life is raw, direct, accessible, and free of pretense. For almost 50 years, from 1929’s Un Chien Andalou to 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire, the director never minced words and his philosophy never wavered, unlike, say, the elitist filmmakers and politicians who distort love and sell lies to people everyday. It’s easy, then, to read Simon’s self-imposed exile, relationship to his demanding public, and struggles with temptation as a metaphor for a headstrong and successful Buñuel’s steadfast career.