There is seriously something about Bunuel's more heavily religious films that makes me think I am really overlooking elements of Christianity that can be both deeply philosophical and contentious. If Simon of the Desert, one of Bunuel's black and white work from the sixties is not a dark horse for his most surreal film, it is certainly the winner for his most semantic. Sure he made The Milky Way which uses words from the bible, catechism and theological debates to frame nearly all of its narrative, but something about a guy justifying his standing on a pillar in the desert for no apparent reason other than to suffer, makes for some great dialogue, especially when he finds opposition from not only a feminine devil, but from fellow clergymen as well. I can imagine that this is one of the main films Bunuel received criticism for and a reflection of the reason he was, for quite sometime, banned from Spain. An ignorant and intentionally repressed reading of this film would lead an viewer to think that Bunuel was outright mocking all forms of penance and fasting, however, that is simply not the case. Instead, a film like Simon of the Desert exists to consider the purpose and validity of sacrifice, especially when it is raised upon a literal pedestal and appears to have no value beyond personifying piety. In the matter of forty or so minutes, Bunuel deconstructs an entire characters existence, suggesting that even though he resides upon a religious throne, he is prone to the same failings as a lesser being, or in the rhetoric of this film a sinner. It would also appears, in the opening scenes that one could only creatively shoot around a large pillar so many ways before repeating, yet Bunuel, along with Gabriel Figueroa make the stone object serve as a variety of metaphors and memories throughout the brief satire, and knowing that the two worked on The Exterminating Angel only years earlier helps to ground its explosive surrealist tendencies, yet like the namesake of the film, notions of elevation and groundedness constantly battle narratively and visually throughout the film.
Simon of the Desert centers on a fictional rethinking of a real life saint named Simeon Stylites who spent 39 years of his life sitting on a pillar as an act of devotion to God. His particular form of penance known as asceticism, in which one engages in severe self-sacrifice as a devotion to God. In the film, Simeon (Claudio Brook) is only engaging in the act for six years, six months and six days, a not so sly stab on the part of Bunuel. His act has led him to become a point of prayer for locals who see him as a miracle worker, at one point literally healing the missing hands of a farmer. However, his recent rewarding of a higher pillar by a gracious town elite, leads to his flailing and doubting about his own relationship with God. Furthermore, the accidental gazing upon a woman by a praying monk leads to Simeon's own temptations with the flesh, longings that manifest themselves in a wish to return to the care of his mother, as well as consume lavish and non-sustaining foods. Along with his own personal struggles emerges The Devil (Silvia Pinal) who tempts Simeon with actions of the flesh, dressing in fetishized outfits and even offering its nude body to the stalwart Simeon. Unfortunately, no amount of dedication or penance can seem to get Simeon to retain his original focus. Even after trying to stand on one leg, Simeon begins to lose his credibility. His followers mock his statements as they become more and more illogical and his own visions begin to fail miserably, he starts seeing images of The Devil in the nude and it is upon her eventual arrival in a casket that Simeon falls apart. He sees the arrival of an airplane which whisks the two of them into modernity as they sit in a hip psychedelic club watching young people dance to a song aptly titled "Radioactive Flesh." Simeon has failed to maintain his piety and now resides in a moment of frenzy and physicality that will only lead to his impending unhappiness. In brilliant Bunuel fashion, this absurd closing bookends the film with no explanation and no logic, in what his friends of youth would have called and "ultimate surrealist act."
While the explanation is certainly up for analysis and a point of ambiguity within the film, it is much more important to consider the meaning of the pillar, after all I realized it to be the most important aspect of the film. The obvious go to for the surrealist element is the phallic nature of the film, after all it begins with Simeon being provided a larger pole to stand on, clearly a means of sexual identity. Yet, it is the notion that the ascetic becomes attached to desires of the flesh that affirm this possible reading. He cannot engage in sexual conquest do to oath, as such the large pillar represents his affirmation of power, in a metaphorical sense. I will note that I have had some loving criticism as to my constant reference to psychoanalysis here on the blog, so I will offer other interpretations as well. Another possibility comes when discussing tradition. Bunuel clearly considers what role such a form of penance has in 1965 when luxury and visibility are much easier obtained than in the 4th century. The pillar a clear hearkening back to ancient times serves as Simeon's attachment to the past, one that would reward his seemingly illogical act, yet he cannot escape the frenetic and non-stoic nature of modernity, as the films closing could suggest. The third possibility is that the pillar is a performance piece, in which a man of rather lacking faith uses an object to literally heighten his importance. Aside from curing the sick, an act that is never fully of his doing, Simeon does little to aid people directly, instead he relishes in his superiority and falsely earned admiration. He places himself in an elevated stature to avoid actually helping those on the ground, yet his own foolishness leads him back to the bottom as the film ultimately depicts.
Key Scene: There is a moment when Simeon is laying in his mothers lap while the back ground depicts a shot of Simeon simultaneously standing on the pillar, it is surrealism 101, yet in the hands of Bunuel it is magic.
This is a great film one of Bunuel's lesser known works that is available both on Huluplus and in DVD from Criterion. Pick either and here is to you enjoying it as much as I did.