Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mario of the Desert

While watching the new Criterion Collection disc of Luís Buñuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965), in preparation for reviewing it for next month's SIGHT AND SOUND, I saw a couple of things that struck me as worth noting here -- namely, a previously unnoted set of connections or coincidences linking the work of Buñuel and his contemporary Mario Bava.

There has been some debate on the subject of which came first: the little girl devil in Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! or the one in Federico Fellini's TOBY DAMMIT. The answer to that brain-teaser, it turns out, is the one in Buñuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT, played with minxish aplomb by VIRIDIANA's Silvia Pinal. The Devil materializes to tempt the early Christian ascetic Simon (DR. TARR'S TORTURE DUNGEON's Claudio Brook) in various guises, the second of which is as a little girl rolling a hoop. When her innocence has no effect, she turns more womanly and coquettish, displaying a shapely pair of dark-nyloned legs and finally baring her breasts (a startling image which Criterion has boldly posited as the disc's inset), yet Simon remains inviolate.

The hoop accessory is interesting, being analogous to the white ball of Bava and Fellini's evil spectres, but also because it has a Freudian dimension of entrapment when contrasted with the phallic pillar of Simon's proud asceticism.

After the failure of her thwarted seduction, Pinal's Devil returns as a bearded, lamb-cradling Jesus Christ and, still later, as a bare-breasted goddess. The Buñuelian irony of all this, of course, is that Simon's prayers for godly intervention into his selfless life attract only the brickbats of a friendly Hell. Finally, abruptly, the Devil sweeps Simon off the top of his pillar by introducing a jet plane into this early Anno Domini fable.
The sudden assault of futurism anticipates the finale of Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973), in which Elke Sommer survives a harrowing night among ghosts in what appears to be another century, only to find herself aboard a 747 bound for Hell, piloted by Telly Savalas' Satan. Producer Alfredo Leone has taken credit for suggesting this finale, but it seems remarkably consistent with these and other Buñuelian tropes found in Bava's filmography. LISA AND THE DEVIL, of course, was also filmed in Toledo, Spain -- which Buñuel considered "a holy city." He filmed TRISTANA there in 1969.
Criterion has also issued Buñuel and Pinal's earlier masterpiece THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1964), in which a severed hand briefly runs amok. The look of this deathly appendage is nearly identical to a sculpture of a disembodied hand that plays a prominent role in Bava's final feature, SHOCK aka BEYOND THE DOOR II (1978).

SIMON OF THE DESERT runs only 45 minutes and is perfect enough at this length. Buñuel always claimed that the money (supplied by Pinal's furniture magnate husband, who produced) ran out, preventing him from completing the picture. In a supplement on the SIMON disc, a 2008 interview with Pinal includes her surprise confession that she was responsible for pulling the plug, when Buñuel excused himself from another project she was planning, a vanity three-episode anthology inspired by the Mastroianni/Loren hit, YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW. The actress now regrets her fit of hubris and recognizes that only her work with Buñuel has entitled her to a place in the history of cinema.

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