Simeon Stylites was a real man who lived atop a pillar for 37 years in Syria. One day, when some local monastic Elders heard of his form of asceticism, they tried to test his intentions. They went to him and told him to come down from the pillar. Their plan was to forcibly drag him down if he disobeyed, but if he was willing to submit, they would leave him on his pillar. Simeon was obedient, and the Elders let him stay.
Simeon Stylites went atop the pillar in order to get away from the nagging crowds seeking his counsel. He separated himself from man in order to be closer to God. Luis Bunuel, at the time of making his 45-minute feature Simon of the Desert, based loosely off Simeon Stylites, was in his second exile from Spain. He had moved to Mexico because of his films critical of religion and the Vatican. Bunuel had been forcibly removed from his pestering homeland, and in his removal, he became even further from God.
Simon of the Desert is a part of Bunuel’s trilogy of films (Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel), which dealt with his controversial takes on religion. Simon of the Desert is no different. In the film, Simon’s ascetic method makes him come upon many tempters in the form of Silvia Pinal. She visits him as a lustful schoolgirl, and as a Jesus figure. Throughout the film, however, Bunuel’s critical attitude towards religion comes through in his treatment of the Simon character. You come to side with his tempters. Notably, one later in the film, who tells Simon that he’s of little use to man: “Your unselfishness is admirable and very good for your soul. But I fear that, like your penance, it is of little use to man.” Simon has let his lust for God’s acceptance harm others, especially his dying mother, who he ignores for God’s sake. Bunuel’s camera is often suspended in the sky with Simon. When it’s directed towards him, it is filled with the emptiness of the sky and hills, but when directed towards other characters, Bunuel fills the frame with the tight brotherhood of man, something Simon has lost for his God.
In the end, Bunuel submitted to his budgetary monks and cut the film short. The film ends at a point where it’s just starting to get interesting. Bunuel’s humility might not allow for any realizations in the 45-minute run time, but it’s an essential viewing for photography’s sake, and maybe God’s.