Simon of the Desert

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

5 January

Feast of Simeon Stylites

Today is the feast day of the Christian ascetic saint Simeon Stylites. Unless you are an adherent of the Eastern Orthodox Church, in which case his feast day is on 1 September. This son of a shepherd born in what is now Turkey became a zealous believer in the denial of the fleshly world as a teenager. In this he was not unusual – the Church had increasingly come to see the world not as a stage on the way to Paradise, but as a contradiction of it. The world was bad; heaven good (hence the Catholic church’s continuing problem with sex). Back to Simeon, who was so zealous that he was thrown out of the monastery he had entered at 16, after fasting so severely that he nearly killed himself. He had also bound up his waist with palm fronds to make it almost impossible to eat. Simeon followed up this stunt with a year and a half in a hut, refusing to eat at all for the period of Lent. He also claimed he had not drunk either during this time. This feat was clearly impossible or a miracle – miracle seemed to be the consensus. Following on from this David Blaine-like performance, Simeon took to standing for as long as he physically could, until he fell down with exhaustion. Simeon was becoming famous, and was sought out by crowds of people wishing to ask him advice, or who believed he could intercede with the saints on their behalf. In an attempt to avoid the crowds, Simeon started to live on top of a pillar away from the local town. His fans built him a higher pillar, and he vowed to live out the rest of his life on the one-metre platform that sat atop this pillar, 15 metres above the ground. Here he stayed for decades, being fed by the local populace, refusing to let women approach him (women being more worldly than men, being the creators of life), even his mother. Simeon became even more popular, and allowed visitors to climb the ladder every afternoon. He would write sermons and preach to the crowds. Remarkably, his preaching seems to have been wise, thoughtful and temperate. He was often asked to adjudicate in legal matters. In AD 459, after 37 (or 39, depending on source) years on the stylite, as his pillar was called, he died. The fashion for Pillar-Saints, or Stylites, did not die with him, and in fact there are two other Simeon Stylites – Simeon Stylites the Younger, and Simeon Stylites III. No relation.

Simon of the Desert (1965, dir: Luis Buñuel)

Luis Buñuel must be due some sort of revival. Once about as fashionable as a bourgeoisie-baiting film-maker could get – around the time of That Obscure Object of Desire – his star has waned with the decline of progressive politics. Buñuel is on typical playful form in his film starring Claudio Brook as an ascetic who climbs up a pillar in order to get closer to god. We pick up the plot as Simeon is changing model of pillar – from the basic one to an altogether more plush, certainly taller, version built for him by a rich fan. As he swaps perches, the saint is asked to perform a number of miracles, all of which go wrong, and is subjected to temptation by a hot young girl, a hot young boy and a hipster, as the action shifts suddenly from the 4th century to 1960s New York. It’s a short film, at around only 45 minutes, but it’s packed with black comedy and archive surrealism (let’s not forget that Buñuel was in at the start of surrealism), with a tone that keeps shifting from piety to blasphemy, from dead serious to knockabout comedy. Was Simeon a masochist, a holy fool, or just an everyday fool elevated to godliness by the gullible? Buñuel manages, just about, to have it every way, with Brook impressive as the saint who is one minute a cheapjack pedlar of sanctimony, the next a genuinely bewildered good man who might well be touched by saintliness. As for Silvia Pinal as the shapeshifting Satan – sticking her tongue in Simeon’s ear, all bosoms and heavy eyelids – she’s enough to make you wish the money hadn’t run out and that Buñuel had been able to make this film run to longer than its 45 minutes. However, short or not, it’s one of Buñuel’s great films from his Mexican period, a work of bizarre originality from a director on a roll.

Why Watch?

  • A special jury prize at Venice Film Festival in 1965
  • Gabriel Figeuroa’s kinetic cinematography
  • If you don’t know Buñuel, a great place to start
  • A film from a man who said “Thank god I’m an atheist”

Simon of the Desert – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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