Cinema and Technology: Simon of the Desert (1965)

This is the time of the year when God and the glamour of technology come together in a bright, dazzling way. By Zafar Anjum
22 Dec 2009

Since we are reaching the end of this year and Christmas and the holidays are round the corner, I thought I would leave you with a sober thought by talking about a film that looks at spiritualism and technology.

This is the time of the year when God and the glamour of technology come together in a bright, dazzling way. Think of the illuminated streets and shopping malls, the festive spirit, the exchange of gifts and the celebration through various symbols of a great spiritual figure’s birth, a figure who changed the destiny of mankind.

I cannot think of a film more appropriate for this time than Luis Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965). Bunuel (1900-1983), a Spanish-born filmmaker who acquired Mexican citizenship, is considered one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. He worked in Mexico, France, Spain and the United States and made a number of remarkable surreal and philosophical films including Belle de Jour, That Curious Object of Desire, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, among others.

Simon of the Desert is the last film that Bunuel made in Mexico, using Mexican actors. The film, at its 45 minutes length, is incomplete because the producer ran out of money after five reels.

The film is about the main character, Simon, a stylite, played by Claudio Brook. Simon is an ascetic who spends his life on top of a pillar, atoning for his sins, and dedicating his life to the prayer of God.

In the early part of the film, Simon is about a smaller pillar to a taller pillar, a gift from a rich benefactor—the whole episode suggesting “opportunities for professional advancement” even in the realm of renunciation.

When the film begins, Simon has spent six year, six months and six days—666 being the mark of the beast—on his old pillar. His quest for holiness attracts the devil’s attention to him. The devil appears to him in several forms—a beautiful woman carrying a water pitcher, a seductress dressed in a school girlish sailor suit, a young male shepherd with fake curls, a worldly woman with a fancy hairdo and finally a miniskirted dancer in a New York nightclub.

Each time the devil appears to tempt or distract Simon, he recognises him and does not fall prey to his mischief. Until the final scene when this rupture occurs: the worldly woman tries to tempt him and an airplane flying overhead—the only symbol of modern technology in the film so far—seals the deal. In the next and last scene of the film, we see Simon as a suited and booted young New Yorker in a nightclub throbbing with lusty, dancing bodies. There is a live instrumental rock band on stage and the devil tells Simón that the hipsters are dancing a dance called “Radioactive Flesh”. The film ends there.

Since the film remains incomplete, we are not sure what Bunuel intended to convey but in his interviews he has pointed out certain things. To the question that “the devil takes Simon to the twentieth century and brings him to a noisy discotheque”, he replied: “I don’t know. You must remember that the film is not finished…Simon should have ended up on an even taller column, some twenty meters high, next to the sea, where the hierarchy of the church would come to see him. I filmed for only eighteen days. Since the storyline breaks, I had to look for an ending that didn’t have Simon praying atop his column…I was interested in seeing Simon’s reaction when he returns to the world. But the end result was dubious.”

Bunuel was not known for his spirituality and he often invited unfavourable comments from the Vatican on his films. On his belief system, Buñuel, in a 1977 article in The New Yorker, wrote: “I’m not a Christian, but I’m not an atheist, either…I’m weary of hearing that accidental old aphorism of mine, ‘I’m an atheist, thank God.’ It’s outworn. Dead leaves. In 1951, I made a small film called Mexican Bus Ride, about a village too poor to support a church and a priest. The place was serene, because no one suffered from guilt. It’s guilt we must escape from, not God.”

Therefore, showing the airplane, standing in for technology, as a world transformative phenomenon, even a vehicle of the devil, and the crazy, radioactive flesh dance (allusion to nuclear technology and its inherent menaces) do not necessarily mean that Bunuel was preaching against technology. At best he is ambiguous. “I’m always ambiguous,” he has said. “Ambiguity is a part of my nature because it breaks with immutable preconceived ideas. Where is truth? Truth is a myth…”

Yet Bunuel was aware of the loss of the power of spirituality in humans in the modern civilization. “In fact, holiness counts for very little now,” he said. “But though we are not believers, we can feel that as a loss.”

Zafar Anjum is the online editor of MIS Asia dot com.


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