Simon of the Desert

Simon of the Desert or Simon del Desierto is a forty-two minute film by Luis Bunuel that is a study of St. Simon Stylites, who spent thirty seven years on top of a pillar preaching Christianity to travelers and pilgrims before his death in 459 AD. This historical approach is taken lightly, because the film is not a documentary about the life and times of St. Simon. Bunuel uses the concept to branch off into a typical Bunuel film, which relies heavily on dreamlike imagery and symbolism.

Simon sits atop a pillar in the desert. The audience can draw certain conclusions, such as--Simon is closer to God or Simon has to rise above the rest of the world. Throughout the film, the devil comes in different forms to have Simon give in to temptations. The devil comes in the form of a pretty young girl wearing a beard, who then tries to convince the somewhat delirious saint that she is his Savior. A dwarf asks Simon to put a blessing on him and his goats, but does not want the same blessing that his animals receive. This is a familiar Bunuel tactic to demonstrate how human beings are animals, and no more important than the four legged ones. Simon's mother is camped out at the base of the pillar. Simon eats food that is brought up to him by a rope. The rope could represent what connects the holiness of Simon to his humanity which exists below in the form of his mother. He was brought into the world through natural means, rather than divine means, thus making the rope a connection that he fails to see, because of his involvement with God. The desert where Simon resides is an extra- ordinary world where rationality is absent. The devil tempts Simon again, in the form of a woman wearing a sailor suit and carrying a hoop. The hoop is possibly a symbol of eternal life. The woman fails to persuade Simon and so, ran off into the desert in the form of a very old naked woman. Perhaps Bunuel was suggesting that he could see what the woman would become, to see her for what she really is. A coffin moves by itself across the desert which could be a symbol of Simon's death.

The odd and crazy world where Simon is on top of a pillar in the desert suddenly and without warning becomes a dance club in New York City. Simon, now dressed as a beatnik instead of in dirty garbs, is sitting in this dance club watching many young people doing an energetic dance. We learn that the dance is called the Radioactive Flesh. The somewhat sedated Simon is having a drink and watching this new world of chaos around him. The question that is raised is whether this new world that has been presented to him is any less chaotic and strange than the desert world. This new atmosphere is much the opposite of the previous one as it is darker and much more closed in. The people in this world seem much more concerned with self gratification than the people of the desert who wished for salvation from God. The old Simon must be dead, because the new Simon is interested but not overly concerned about the evil in his new environment. Maybe Bunuel is suggesting that all people are products of their environment. What separates the holy Simon from the modern Simon could simply be where and when they lived on this planet. Perhaps the entire film is a reference to the life of Bunuel.

Simon of the Desert is a compelling film as far as its symbolism goes. Upon a first viewing, as in many of Luis Bunuel's films, the film cannot be interpreted on a literal level. Once the viewer submits to the imagery and tries to understand some of it, then the film has served a purpose. Of course, there are often many interpretations of certain images and the film on the whole. One of the characters is a dwarf, which possibly represents someone who has not reached their full capacity in the eyes of God. The dwarf asks for a blessing, but does not want the same blessing that his goats will receive. He considers himself better in some way. The pillar on which Simon spends all of his time is a symbol. The devil in his disguises is a symbol. The coffin that is self propelled is a symbol.

In the end, though, despite the overdose on symbolism, the film offers a real sense of irony. The ending, in which Simon is no longer a saint, but rather an inhabitant of a dance club drinking a martini, is both ironic and humorous. The ending of the film among the oddity of the entire film lends itself to making this film more commercial and acceptable. Simon of the Desert has a trace of a plot, whereas many other Bunuel films are just a series of images.

--Matt Meyer

Luis Bunuel