“More welcome is slander to the pious soul than odious eulogies.” (1) Is the ascetic a paragon of humanity, or a self-indulgent masochist? This is the question Luis Buñuel, great Spanish Surrealist and provocateur, poses to us in Simón del Desierto (Simon of the Desert, 1965), the shortest of his post-1930s films.
It may come as a surprise to learn that this most Buñuelian of premises – as an act of radical piety, a man spends years atop a pillar in the middle of the desert – is in fact historical. There was, in fact, a Simeon the Stylite (2), a 5th century Syrian hermit who spent the final 39 years of his life standing on columns, and many more across the Eastern Roman Empire would go on to follow his example (3). Furthermore, several of the film’s minor episodes – Simón’s chastity extending to the rejection of his own mother; priests setting up hurdles to test his zeal; private philanthropists offering him ever-taller pillars to call home – appear to at least be based loosely on ancient accounts (4). Even the Stylite’s Jobian struggle with Satan is a theme of artwork of the time: a 6th Century plate depicts a serpent wrapped around Saint Simeon’s tower (5).
Buñuel was first introduced to this story by the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who was particularly amused by a reference to Simeon’s excrement covering the column like melted wax on a candle shaft (6). Such bizarre imagery would have appealed to a Surrealist like Buñuel, who nevertheless (and somewhat ironically, all things considered) dismissed it as unrealistic (7). Many other amusing and absurd images are unfortunately missing from the final film; its unusual length – just 45 minutes – a consequence of the producer running into financial difficulties over the course of the shoot (8). As such, many of the director’s planned scenes, including a visit from the Byzantine Emperor and a conclusion in which Simón’s pillar was to be blown to smithereens, were never shot (9). Only the hastily added Manhattan conclusion prevented Simón del Desierto from being left unfinished (10).
Nevertheless, it is an important work in Buñuel’s oeuvre. Falling in the midst of his transition from Central America to Europe – he had only just completed his first French film in over 30 years, Le journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964) – Simón del Desierto proved to be his last Mexican film. It also marked a return to the dream logic and episodic narrative of his early Surrealist provocations, traits that would once again define his late French films (the latter quality in particular often earns comparisons to the film and TV work of Monty Python ). There is another interesting link to Buñuel’s earlier works: the ritual drums of Calanda acoustically accompany Simón’s penance at one point, just as they do for fellow Christ stand-ins Father Nazario at the end of Nazarin (1959) and the Sadean Duc de Blangis in L’Âge d’Or (1930).
Nazarin, in particular, is an interesting companion piece to Simón del Desierto. Both films – one a melodrama, one a comedy – feature hapless “Jesus” figures at odds with the religious establishment and world in general. In the later film, the priests view Simón as a useful tool for maintaining control over the masses, but find his methodology (literally) unorthodox. This is depicted most explicitly in the scene in which a rogue priest becomes possessed by peculiarly dogma-conscious spirits (“Down with the holy hypostasis!”). After Simón seems to have done most of the hard casting-out work, a priest confides to his colleague that “I’ll finish exorcising him at the monastery in my own way”.
It is no secret, of course, that Buñuel thought little of organised religion. His attitude towards his lone “holy man” characters, on the other hand, seems to have been rather more complex. Simón, with his forked beard and earnest piety, is a parodic figure, but also a sympathetic one, his integrity an explicit counterpoint to the cynics and opportunists hovering beneath his pillar. Like Father Nazario, he is something of a martyr – Buñuel told reporters that the protagonist of Simón del Desierto “move[d]” him (12) – yet, Simón is also the subject of the film’s strongest criticism. Near the end of the film, a priest attempts to give Simón a lecture on the concept of material greed. “Mankind will forever be entwined in fratricidal conflict, and all because of that accursed ‘yours’ and ‘mine’”, he explains to our bewildered protagonist. When he tries to demonstrate this principle by taking the hermit’s food bag, Simón makes no attempt to stop him. “Your unselfishness is admirable, and very good for your soul”, the Marxist priest concludes, “but I fear that, like your penance, it is of little use to man”.
Much of the film’s comedy derives from this ineffectiveness. Simón’s solitude, meant to draw him closer to God, merely causes him to lose his marbles: he accidentally almost blesses a detached tooth, and forgets his prayers. Likewise, the one miracle we see him perform is shrugged off by beneficiary and bystanders alike. It is tempting to recall here the Carthusian monks so patiently depicted in Philip Gröning’s Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence, 2005): one is impressed by their mute self-denial, but what exactly is their contribution to humankind? What good do Catholic priests achieve by avoiding sexual relations; or commune-dwellers by abandoning consumer society? By casting off the satisfactions of the flesh for spiritual fulfilment, do they merely trade one sort of greed for another? If so, Simón’s is (inept) self-flagellation.
Only in his personal, rather inconsequential battles with the Devil – hilariously played by Silvia Pinal – does Simón seem to hold his own. He’s temporarily taken in by her fake Jesus beard and anachronistic schoolgirl costume, but manages to fend her off on each occasion. Nevertheless, she eventually gets the upper hand. Like the girl-Lucifer of András Jeles’ Angyali Üdvözlet (The Annunciation, 1984), tempting the saint is merely the prelude; the real goal is to break his spirit with visions of humanity’s base, death-ridden future.
In the final sequence, Simón and his tormentor are spirited off to a modern metropolis replete with skyscrapers and nightlife. Sitting in a rock ‘n’ roll club with trimmed beard and cardigan, he glumly observes the frenzied convulsions of the young and liberated. “What is this dance?” Simón asks his companion. She responds enthusiastically: “It’s called ‘radioactive flesh’! It’s the latest dance – the final dance.” The intimation, obvious enough now, would have been even more so in the age of Brezhnev and LBJ. Simón has been transported to Armageddon, and everybody but him seems to be having a lot of fun.
None more so, perhaps, than Buñuel himself, who began the final chapter of his autobiography by noting that “we now have enough nuclear bombs not only to destroy all life on the planet but also to blow the planet itself, empty and cold, out of its orbit altogether” – a concept that he found “magnificent” (13). When that day comes, it’ll be hard to say what, exactly, our species’ ascetics ever did to prevent it.
- All dialogue quoted is taken from the English-language subtitles on the Criterion Collection’s DVD of Simon of the Desert, New York, 2008.
- “Stylite” literally means “of the pillar”.
- Herbert Thompson, “St. Simeon Stylites the Elder”, The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 13, Robert Appleton Company, New York, 1912.
- Liam Heneghan, “Life on a Pillar: Environmental Thought and the Odor of Sanctity”, 3 Quarks Daily 27 June 2011: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2011/06/life-on-a-pillar-environmental-thought-and-the-odor-of-sanctity.html.
- This plate (creator unknown) is held at the Louvre, Salle de Qabr Hiram.
- J. Francisco Aranda, Luis Buñuel: biografía crítica, Editorial Lumen, Barcelona, 1969, p. 223.
- Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Buñuel, Vintage Books, New York, 1983, p. 240.
- Rob Stone and Julián Daniel Gutiérrez-Albilla (eds.), A Companion to Luis Buñuel, Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, 2013, p. 423.
- Buñuel, p. 240.
- Bill Krohn and Paul Duncan (eds.), Luis Buñuel: The Complete Films, Taschen, Köln, 2005, pp. 143-144.
- Stone and Gutiérrez-Albilla, pp. 32-33.
- Krohn and Duncan, p. 145.
- Buñuel, p. 251.
Simón del Desierto/Simon of the Desert (1965 Mexico 45 mins)
Prod Co: Producciones Alatriste Prod: Gustavo Alatriste Dir: Luis Buñuel Scr: Luis Buñuel, Julio Alejandro Phot: Gabriel Figueroa Ed: Carlos Savage Art Dir: Jesús Bracho
Cast: Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal, Enrique Álvarez Félix, Hortensia Santoveña, Francisco Reiguera, Antonio Bravo