Luis Buñuel

“I am a materialist,” the Spanish director Luis Buñuel once informed an interviewer,

[but] that doesn’t mean I deny the imagination, fantasy, or even that certain unexplainable things can exist. Rationally, I don’t believe a handless man can grow new hands, but I can act as though I believed it, because I’m interested in what comes afterward. Besides, I am working in cinema, which is a machine that manufactures miracles. Thanks to cinema, we can see . . . how a seed germinates and grows into a plant or how a bullet leaves a gun barrel and strikes an urn, whose fragments settle to the ground with the grace of a dancer. And these miracles don’t even surprise us anymore. It’s a shame that cinema wasn’t invented centuries ago.[1]

Buñuel, a lifelong adherent of the surrealist pursuit of unconscious motives and the gratification of desire, was discussing Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert, Mexico, 1965), a 42-minute comic parable about the trials of St. Simon Stylites, a fifth-century anchorite who spent 37 years preaching to pilgrims from atop a 60-foot column in the desert near Aleppo, in Syria. It’s a film that abounds in the kinds of tricks of the cinema which Georges Méliès had made the staple of his own little parables and which had in fact endeared him to the surrealists and other French avant-garde artists in the 1920s. Early in the film, for example, Simon does indeed perform the miracle of restoring to a thief the hands that had been lopped off as punishment; later, he expels Satan from a possessed man by making a frog hop out of his body.

The Devil in Black Stockings

Simon, however, is not the only miracle worker in the film. Miracle by miracle, he is matched—indeed, overmatched—by Satan, who appears to him several times. At one point, for example, Satan tempts Simon’s piety by appearing in the form of Christ as the Good Shepherd. When Simon sees through the deception, Satan angrily turns an entire flock of sheep into frogs and then, as if to add thaumaturgic injury to insult, causes pebbles to fly up from the ground and assault the helpless holy man.

See the moving picture


     Simón del Desierto: The Devil’s Garter

Moreover, Simon’s Satan, Nazarene-like beard notwithstanding, prefers the guise of a beautiful blonde, and it’s in this form that the devil appears to tempt him sexually. First, Satan arrives in the form of a schoolgirl (“she seems hardly to have reached puberty,” according to the screenplay). She is playing with a hoop (probably emblematic of the ouroboros, or serpent with its tail in its mouth), and she is dressed, explains Buñuel, “with black stockings, fastened with brooches and a garter. These are elements I consider every exciting, much more exciting than complete nudity.”[2] Even so, she does resort to displaying her breasts and demonstrates the length of her tongue by licking his cheek (Figure R3.1). Simon expels her by denying her, but she vows to return.

When she does, she tells him: “Simon of the Desert, although this may surprise you, there is really very little difference between us.” Indeed, the association between them has already been established by the fact that Satan’s tricks are cruel parodies of Simon’s well-meaning miracles. More importantly, Simon, though a gentle and truly pious man, is also quite delusional: as a simple but observant goatherd tells him (tapping his own head), “I don’t think you’re quite right up here.” Now, as we already know, although Buñuel’s “materialism” precludes any belief in the devil, he does consider it worthwhile to imagine her existence “because I’m interested in what comes afterward.”[3] Buñuel’s Satan, then, is “real” only as a product of Simon’s delirium, for Simon, too, desires more than anything to know what comes next—that is, in the next world. Ironically, Satan’s last temptation consists in fulfilling this wish: like Faust, who is whisked off by Mephistopheles on a whirlwind tour of future epochs,[4] Simon is borne by Satan to the New York City of the 1960s.

“Noise, Rock Music, Electric Guitars, and Other Demonic Things”


                        Simón del Desierto:

            The Rock ’n’ Roll Apocalypse

Here, his pillar—and indeed the One Building of the Apocalypse—has multiplied into hundreds of skyscrapers, and, likewise, all other evidence of change is purely quantitative: the twentieth century simply has more people and more noise than the fifth—a purely materialistic vision of the “next” world and hardly the transcendental realm in whose promise Simon has placed his faith. The future, it would seem, is a product of a vicious cycle symbolized by the ouroboros, Satan’s toy, and, as such, quite the opposite of Isaiah’s highway to the City of God.[5] It’s a discothèque in which nubile girls—the great granddaughters of Méliès’ Châtelet Theater poules—rock to the beat of “Radioactive Flesh” (a chant calling for the Apocalypse as nuclear holocaust) pounded out by a band called The Sinners; it’s a pandemonium of mindless acolytes who worship, according to Buñuel’s screenplay, “noise, rock music, electric guitars, and other demonic things.”[6] Above all, however, the future reflects a state of affairs that gives the lie to faith in change. Simon’s “miracles,” like Satan’s tricks, work merely fugitive changes upon physical objects (including human bodies), and although he “heals” them, his pilgrims remain morally and emotionally corrupt: when asked by his little daughter for a view of his miraculously restored hands, the ex-thief uses one of them to smack her on the head.

“You must change,” Satan says in order to entice Simon, for belief in change, ironically, underlies any faith that one can achieve the betterment of humankind in its own realm. As such, it’s the beginning of the end of delirious belief in individual redemption through ascetic irresponsibility and irrational fetishes. But Satan, of course, is also the Mother of Lies, whereby, for all we know, the irony of Simon’s situation may come full vicious circle: the end of delirious belief may also be the end of belief in God and thus the final step in succumbing to temptation. And that, suggests Buñuel, is the chance that we must take.

The Temptation of St. Anthony; or, The Seductions of the Cross


                 Sigmund Freud

Asked if Simón del desierto is not “reminiscent of The Temptation of St. Anthony,” Buñuel agrees but adds that “there is some black humor—blackish, if you prefer.”[7] The immediate reference could be to Gustave Flaubert’s 1874 novel, in which the saint is tempted by the Queen of Sheba. Decidedly more interesting, however, is Félicien Rops’ painting La Tentation de St-Antoine (1878), in which, on the cross that stands before the saint’s eyes, Satan has replaced Christ with a naked woman (Figure R3.2). Rops’ treatment of the theme was Sigmund Freud’s favorite because it made more psychological sense than depicting “analogous representations . . . alongside the Savior on the Cross. Only Rops made [temptation] take the place of Our Lord Himself. . . . [H]e seemed to know that the repressed thought returns at the very moment of its repression.”[8]

Rops was the foremost French book illustrator of the 1880s, and it’s tempting (so to speak) to compare with his painting Méliès’ own Tentation de saint Antoine (Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1898), in which the saint (played by Méliès) is constantly harassed by demons in the guise of women (Figure R3.3).[9] First, a girl in a flimsy costume is dispelled by prayer when she begins to stroke his beard. Before he can regain his breath, two more women appear and seat themselves on his lap, only to withdraw when he rises in horror. The next two temptations are arguably among the most operatic in the whole of Méliès’ canon:

See the moving picture


              Georges Méliès, Tentation

                 de saint Antoine, 1898

The vicious circle of spiritual torture, it seems, cannot be broken by any outside agency for the simple reason that it’s formed purely of images that body forth the delirious man’s innermost desires—desires, we must assume, that cannot be repressed even by the rigors of ascetic devotion.

[1] Quoted by José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel, ed. and trans. Paul Lenti (New York: Marsilio, 1992), p. 183. See also Peter B. Schillaci, “Luis Buñuel and the Death of God,” in Three European Directors, ed. James M. Wall (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1973), pp. 142-48 and 169-77; Freddy Bouache, The Cinema of Luis Buñuel, trans. Peter Graham (London: The Tantivy Press, 1973), pp. 151-56; and Raymond Durgnat, Luis Buñuel (1968; rpt. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1970), pp. 136-38.

[2] Quoted by Colina and Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire, p. 179.

[3] Quoted by Colina and Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire, p. 183.

[4] See Durgnat, Luis Buñuel, p. 138.

[5] See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 150.

[6] Quoted by Colina and Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire, p. 179.

[7] Quoted by Colina and Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire, p. 179.

[8] Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva (1907). See Jan Ackerman, “Delusions and Dreams: Freud’s Pompeian Love Letter,” in Compromise Formations: Current Directions in Psychoanalytic Criticism, ed. Vera J. Camden (Kent, OH: Kent St. Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 44-60.

[9] On the scenario of Tentation de saint Antoine, see Paul Hammond, Marvellous Méliès (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975), pp. 36, 108, 110. Also consulted: Michael Brooke, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” Georges Méliès: An In-Depth Look at the Cinema’s First Creative Genius (2008), at (accessed February 26, 2014).

Back to top

Back to CHAPTER 3/Part 2