Leave it to Bunuel to craft a film depicting lunacy in crystalline form that manages to both indict religion in general, and invite sympathy for the insanely devout. Considering the question of faith and its value, it helps to simplify the environment around the intellectual exercise that will provide the context. History has documented the asceticism of stylites since Saint Simeon stood atop a pillar for 37 years to demonstrate his penance in the 5th century, and it provides the perfect stage upon which the surrealist master can play a little game filled with enough metaphor and unexplained symbolism to make the viewer every bit as much a part of the action as the man on the pillar. And though the scenes progress from odd to incomprehensible, the craft of the filmmaker assures you that a steady hand is on the rudder.
Simon preaches the word of his preferred god from a pedestal in the desert to a devoted following, all of whom are in awe of his adherence to his faith. He performs miracles, and helps his people in that he reinforces their belief system in a way that works for most everyone. Promotion occurs when he reaches the sixth year, sixth month, and sixth day of his occupation of the perch (the significance of the number is lost on everyone) and he is moved to an even higher one provided by a rich benefactor. The increase in distance from his followers, as if he is that much closer to God, appears to push his ridiculous example past a breaking point, and his retinue abandons him. Hilariously, a man who lost both his hands responds to their miraculous restoration by smacking his daughter. And so the rift is made real, between the zealot and the apathetic. Into this divide steps Satan, embodied by the succulent Silvia Pinal (the heroine of Viridiana, bless her) in various guises. Satan attempts to lure Simon down from his pedestal by suggesting that his performance is rather unnecessary. I will not go into details into how this is eventually achieved, except that removal of the austere devotee from his pedestal depends upon removing him from that context, demonstrating that perhaps religion has lost its practical uses with the march of time. The final act (I will not spoil it for you) is open to interpretation, as is all of Bunuel’s work, which thankfully resists easy characterization.
All of Bunuel’s trademarks are here, from unexpected symbolism and disorienting shifts in subject and time, to the fetishism that consumed him. Examination of fetishes works in Bunuel films that deal with religion (The Milky Way, Nazarin), since religions in general, and Christianity in particular, lean heavily upon fetishism. From the iconography to the fussily conducted rituals, and the preoccupation with sexuality, there is a playground in which to play with these ideas. When Satan drives up to Simon’s pillar in a coffin that sounds like a streetcar, only those lacking a sense of humor could resist a laugh. Simon of the Desert is no vitriolic attack upon organized religion – it is a visionary and formidable intellectual mind having some fun. If Christianity appears ridiculous and out of step with practicality and modernity, then such things are collateral damage. Whatever your views, the film provides rich material for discussion, and so remains with you every bit as long as the eye slice of Un Chien Andalou.
If there must be a central theme, it would be the struggle to maintain faith in the face of apathy, long after any practical reason to do so has vanished. His apostles wander off, regarding his sacrifice with contempt, and still he remains on the pedestal. One priest accuses him of fraud, and he is nonplussed. He becomes delirious, blessing crickets and rabbits as a “bit of fun”, but persists in his vigil. Ultimately, it takes Satan to shake him into a new perspective by bringing him down to earth to admire the view. Perhaps in the closing moments, he realizes the futility of faith, and how one’s dignity and humanity are the first casualties of embarking upon a journey of asceticism, denial of earthly pleasures, and pursuing a pure faith. Maybe this is the beginning of wisdom for him, but in a way this could be seen as tragic, as the tremendous inner strength that served him before has now ebbed.
In the interim, Bunuel does not deny his affection for this odd character – he admires Simon’s sincerity and innocence. One monk who provides Simon with food discusses the notion of property and how it fuels human conflict, using Simon’s food bag as an example. “What if I take this, and call it mine?” Simon is puzzled by the concept, and gives it to him without hesitation. A world filled with true believers like him would be utterly at peace. Dull and thoughtless, but peaceful. One cannot really talk to Simon, but one can find something in his ethic to admire, uncomplicated though it might be.
True believers are impossible to communicate with, and are generally felt to be the most dangerous people alive. All the same, they engender a perverse sort of respect from me for at least backing their insane ideas with all their physical and mental strength. Their number in this world is thankfully few, though through the tireless work of charlatans eager to take advantage of the simpleminded, their number is growing daily. And it is this group that poses a greater danger than any fanatic – they do not believe a single word they say, but these sociopaths speak the language of the fanatic, and know how to galvanize them en masse. Half-hearted Christians, after all, form the core of the American right-wing, and despite their extremely vocal piety, they amass wealth through graft, perpetrate fraud, and take advantage of public stupidity to leverage their control over bureaucracy and business. Pat Robertson claims to be just a shade below the stature of Jesus, but that does not stop him from owning a controlling interest in diamond mines in West Africa that utilize child labor.
These parasites view religion as an opportunity to part people from their cash or their power. A true Christian extremist would take a vow of poverty and immerse himself in the worst slums on earth and would survive on bread, faith, and little else. At worst, they may take to the streets and threaten to become the Fist of the Good Lord for any who do not agree with them, but such movements no longer have much momentum in an information age when even idiots know better. Though religion is so widespread and accepted that only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolutionary theory, this can be attributed to those half-hearted acolytes who believe that one can appreciate scientific advances yet adhere to a religion that has fought tooth and nail against everything science has accomplished after the construction of the iron maiden. A true believer would repudiate all that exposes their belief system as bullshit, and so they would be reduced to an ascetic like Simon. Best of all, you would know who they are, and would properly ignore them on their pedestal, as most of his followers did.
The film hearkens from a time when intellectual games were fodder for the screen, and viewers would chatter endlessly about what heresies the next project from Bunuel, Godard, or other mischievous filmmakers would attempt. At a time when films are either indifferently made and aggressively marketed blockbusters or ersatz quirky independent films, the work of geniuses like Bunuel stand out like a column in a desert. Playful and fearlessly inventive, his filmography offers an eclectic buffet of ideas for you to repeatedly gorge upon and vomit heartily. Still, if you appreciate his vision, then make a point of supporting the next auteur who brings an experimental edge to the cinema, or you will continue to entrench the hacks of world cinema.