Sylvia Pinal as Satan as Jesus in Simon of the Desert, Bunuel, 1965
"Thank God I'm an atheist," the great director Luis Bunuel was fond of repeating in his later years, and he was only half-joking, I think. Bunuel was educated by Jesuits and even recalled witnessing a miracle in his home town of Calanda, Spain. But, at public high school, after being expelled by the Jesuits, philosophically galvanized by "Spencer, Marx, Rousseau [and] Darwin," he lost "what little faith" he still had at around the same time as he lost his virginity, in a Saragossa brothel. Sade and surrealism still had yet to exert their influence, but the die was cast.
Bunuel was one of those atheists to watch out for—the kind that knows Catholic Church history and doctrine backwards and forwards. Late in life he made a close friend of at least one Jesuit priest, largely, I infer, because by the late 20th century a Jesuit priest was the only person you could still talk about that kind of stuff with. As someone just barely old enough to remember the Latin mass, I have a special affection for the two films Bunuel made that deal most explicitly with the myriad mysteries of the church itself (as opposed to religious sentiment and philosophy in action, the subject of 1959''s great Nazarin), 1972 1969's The Milky Way and 1965's SImon of the Desert. Criterion released a swell version of The Milky Way in 2007; Simon, with the equally essential 1963 The Exterminating Angel, is released by the company February 11.
A droll riff on the life of ascetic Simeon Stylites, who stood on a pillar praying for almost 40 years back in the earliest A.D.'s, the 45-minute Simon is, depending on who you believe, either a would-be feature that went uncompleted due to lack of funding (Bunuel's version), or the first part of a two-part anthology film starring Sylvia Pinal, which went uncompleted because the varied directors Pinal and producer/husband Gustavo Alatriste approached to do part two wanted to employ their spouses instead. (Pinal, still living an a genuine superstar in Mexico to this day, tells her version in most entertaining fashion in one of the extras on the Criterion disc.) Its compact form is one of the things that make it so special, so engaging. No sooner does one bit of business mixing what appears to be actual religious credulity with bracing cynicism end than another begins, vying to top the last one. Pinal plays a female Satan who adopts some quite outrageous disguises, as above, but is always found out by the stoic, fearsomely-bearded pillar-topper Simon. She finally achieves her goal by taking him to the one place where they'll be forced to be friends. Because that's all that Satan, the fallen angel, really wants—for oh-so-holy Simon to somehow admit that they're kindred spirits after all.
One reason Bunuel was a lot more fun than the various stern-faced atheists railing against faith these days is that Bunuel was smart enough to understand that here was a battle he'd never win. One actually senses, sometimes, that he didn't want it won—he needed an enemy, or at least what you'd call an opponent, to keep the juices flowing. In Milky Way, an angrier film than SImon, he places religion in the context of the continuity of human stupidity.
One of the most mordantly funny bits in Simon occurs when the ascetic performs an actual miracle, restoring the hands of a crippled peasant, who then nonchalantly rushes his family away from the scene without even so much as a "thank you," and smacks one of his daughters on the back of the head for good measure. "Here a priest could say you are a believer," the critic Tomas Perez Turrent notes in conversation with Bunuel in the indispensable interview book Objects of Desire, a part of which is reproduced in Simon's DVD booklet. Bunuel shrugs him off. "[M]ust you exclude everything that is not materialist and provable from a work of imagination? No. There is an element of mystery, of doubt, of ambiguity. I'm always ambiguous. Ambiguity is a part of my nature because it breaks with immutable preconceived ideas.Where is truth? Truth is a myth. I am a materialist; however, that doesn't mean that I deny the imagination, fantasy, or that even certain unexplainable things can exist. Rationally, I don't believe that a handless man can grow hands, but I can act as though I believe it because I'm interested in what comes afterward. Besides, I am working in cinema, which is a machine that manufactures miracles."