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«Resurrecting the Stylite Simon: Buñuel’s Surrealist History Film Kirsten Strom Abstract This paper discusses a relatively little known film by ...»

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© Kirsten Strom, 2003

Resurrecting the Stylite Simon: Buñuel’s Surrealist History Film

Kirsten Strom


This paper discusses a relatively little known film by Luis Buñuel, specifically in terms of its ability to

examine the relationship of both Surrealist ideology and the cinematic medium to the process of

writing history. Arguing that Simón del desierto/Simon of the Desert (1965) represents a radical

critique of the authority of both history and the indexicality of photographic signifiers, the paper looks to shed light upon the subtleties of Buñuel's method as a historiographer working within a postpositivist ideology based on the notion of doubt.

The film narrates the life of Saint Simeon Stylites, a fifth-century Syrian famed for standing atop a column in the desert for forty years. Though based on a ‘true’ story, Simon of the Desert is a film replete with anachronisms and Surrealist ruptures, which work to undo the film’s own claims to historicity. The film, in other words, eloquently constructs and deconstructs itself simultaneously.

While the film’s ruptures might be dismissed on the grounds that they simply represent Buñuelian black humor, or the aesthetics of Surrealist juxtaposition, this paper will argue that the film’s incongruities also function at a deeper level, critiquing the ideological foundations of modern historiography, in a manner rooted not only in the aesthetics, but also in the radical politics of the Surrealist movement.

At the Intersection of History, Film, and Surrealism Working in Mexico in 1965 for producer Gustavo Alatriste, Luis Buñuel ran out of money while filming Simon of the Desert. The hastily completed film would run only forty-five minutes in its entirety, though it had initially been intended to be feature length. Situated chronologically between the chic French heroine films The Diary of a Chambermaid (1963) and Belle de Jour (1967), Buñuel’s meditation on the ‘real’ life of Byzantine St. Simeon Stylitus has often been overlooked in critical discussions of the auteur’s late ‘masterpieces’. Perhaps this is due to a latent francophilia within the critical discourse, as well as to several more pragmatic factors, such as the film’s unconventional duration, its low budget, and its somewhat anomalous subject matter. The notion that Simon’s content is somewhat anomalous is significant here, as the film is indeed quite ‘Buñuelian’ in a number of aspects, even sharing several actors already familiar to Buñuel’s followers,1 while also plainly privileging many of his so-called obsessions, notably sexuality and Catholicism. But the manifest subject, the biography of a fifth-century Syrian ascetic makes this, in effect, Buñuel’s only history film.2 As such, it provides a rare opportunity to examine the product of a unique form of historiography with implications for both the medium of film and the aesthetics and ideology of Surrealism.

With regard to the cinema, several scholars in recent times have investigated the question of film’s ability to function as historiography in its own right. In the process, they have had to reckon with conventional arguments against the legitimacy of the film as a historical medium, which may be summarized as follows: 1) popular films in particular prioritise entertainment over accuracy; 2) too many details are necessarily improvised, as films are both visually and verbally specific about elements which cannot be confirmed; 3) films can only present episodes; they cannot theorize them;

Papers of Surrealism Issue 1 winter 2003 © Kirsten Strom, 2003

4) films cannot be ‘footnoted’ and thus do not reflect the diversity of the discourse on any given subject.

It may be worth noting, however, that the motives informing these first two arguments seem somewhat at odds with those of the second pair, given that the concerns regarding theory and footnotes seem to advocate the complication and critique of historiographic discourse, while those regarding accuracy and specificity seem rooted in the positivist notion that history’s goal is to arrive at the truth of the past, in such a way that improvisations and narrative manipulations are inappropriate and have no place.

Implicitly negotiating the conflicting methodological assumptions outlined above, Robert Rosenstone, in particular, has argued that filmmaking can viably function as a form of history, not necessarily subordinate or inferior to written texts.3 Following Hayden White, he has suggested, for example, that film’s adherence to cinematic convention only mimics the fact that written texts, whether popular or academic, similarly obey their own conventions. Neither one nor the other, therefore, can claim to be unmediated by the horizon of expectation of their medium. Furthermore, he has suggested that films to be numbered among the ‘New History Film’ genre, most of which were produced in the 1980s and appear to be conscious on some level of theories of postmodernism, have made important contributions to discourses both of history and historiography.4 While Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert has not been officially ranked among these films, I would like to propose that it too provides a significant meditation upon and critique of the process of history writing, one which furthermore meaningfully reflects the charged ideological agendas of Surrealism. Indeed, as I will discuss shortly, the film ranks among those which provide abundant evidence of the importance of Surrealism for Buñuel, even in his late work. More specifically, however, this film provides occasion to discuss the potential of the process of narrating and imaging history to function as a form of Surrealist critique.

While Simon postdates Buñuel’s formal affiliation with the Surrealist group in Paris by three decades, his interest in the subject stems back to his student days in Madrid, when, according to Buñuel, Federico García Lorca introduced him to the thirteenth-century hagiographic text, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. This text’s pages actually do not include an account of St. Simeon Stylitus, who lived out his life in Syria standing, like all good stylites, atop a column;5 but regardless of the source, he would claim to have been attracted to the story of Simon precisely because it fused the quotidian and the marvellous, in a manner which would come to typify later Surrealist practice.

Specifically, Buñuel has claimed that Lorca called his attention to a passage both lyrical and immanently earthly stating that Simon’s excrement flowed down the column like wax from a candle.

(Though Buñuel would repeatedly cite this episode when discussing the genesis of the film, the image itself was not realized within it, a contradiction whose significance will be discussed at the close of this essay).

Papers of Surrealism Issue 1 winter 2003 © Kirsten Strom, 2003 Narrative Overview The title sequence opens onto a procession of chanting monks and peasants, which culminates in the presentation of a new column to the title character, masterfully portrayed by Claudio Brook. Viewers of the film soon learn both that the new column has been dedicated by a wealthy merchant, and that Simon is consequently abandoning the original column, upon which he has stood for six years, six months, and six days. During the brief moment in which Simon’s feet are upon the ground, he rejects two gestures that are made toward him, one from his mother, who wishes to embrace him, and the other from the officiating priest who wishes to ordain him. Telling the former that ‘earthly love cannot come between the Lord and his servants’ and the latter that he is a sinner unworthy of the priesthood, Simon ascends his new column, with the intent, presumably, of being closer to God. No sooner does he reach the top, however, than he is implored from below by a peasant whose hands have been cut off as a punishment for stealing. Showing no signs of being taken aback by the man’s pleading, Simon leads the crowd in prayer, after which the man’s hands miraculously reappear. (Buñuel creates this effect through simple edits and cropping, ‘cutting off’ the man’s elevated hands with the frame of a close-up shot.) Without hesitation, or expression of gratitude, the peasant hurries his family along stating that they have work to do. When his young daughter asks ‘Are they really the same hands, father?’ he orders her to ‘shut up,’ and uses his new hands to slap her on the back of the head.

The next incident marks the first appearance of Silvia Pinal’s character, as she provocatively saunters past the monks attending prayer at the base of Simon’s column. Her role as an instigator of conflict is fulfilled when Simon tricks one of the monks into admitting that he has leered at her. Once the monks have left, however, she returns for Simon alone, dressed anachronistically in a little girl’s sailor suit from the belle époque. As she sings to him of her kingdom, it becomes clear, both to Simon and to the viewer, that she is the devil, who has come to tempt him. Through another simple trick edit, she appears suddenly on top of the column, where she tugs at Simon’s beard, shows him her long tongue, and pierces his back with a lengthy needle. Simon manages to resist both the pleasure and the pain that she offers, but as the scorned devil consequently runs off across the desert in the nude body of an elderly hag, she shakes her fist at him, promising that she will be back.

In short intervals throughout the film, the patterns of Simon’s life atop the column unfold. He sings praises to God almost incessantly, but occasionally shows signs of human frailty, in one instance stumbling and forgetting the next line of his recitation, and in another daydreaming that he is on the ground with his mother, free to feel the earth under his feet and to bond with the woman he had previously refused. Indeed, her role, though limited and virtually without speech, becomes one of the most poignant aspects of the film, as she lives humbly in a small tent on the ground within sight of her son’s column. She watches him and occasionally waves to him as if thinking that he has noticed her, but her efforts are never rewarded. In Simon’s reverie, however, he imagines that she asks him, while he rests his head in her lap: ‘Do you ever think of me?’ Simon’s reply is: ‘Hardly ever. I don’t Papers of Surrealism Issue 1 winter 2003 © Kirsten Strom, 2003 have time.’ To a modern audience, the isolated, ascetic stylite may appear to have nothing but time, but this simple remark succinctly indicates that his struggle for purity overwhelms him ceaselessly.6 On an occasion when the monks have joined Simon for a sermon on the benefits of asceticism, a brother by the name of Trifon surreptitiously places bread, wine, and cheese into Simon’s bag, which hangs down from the top of the column so that he may be provided with the water and lettuce leaves that sustain him physically. Trifon feigns surprise as he pretends to discover the luxury goods, and then accuses Simon of hypocrisy and deceit. When called upon to defend himself, Simon remarks only that slander is more soothing to a humble soul than praise. Trifon, however, suggests to his brothers that the indirectness of Simon’s response is tantamount to proof of guilt. The head brother calls upon the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth, a gesture which soon after sends Trifon to the ground, cursing and frothing at the mouth, in spasms of demonic possession. The resulting chaos reveals the potential for confusion and human fallibility among the community of monks.

One day, in mid-prayer, Simon takes note of an approaching flock of sheep, led by a bearded figure in classical garb. Simon recognizes the teary-eyed figure as a suffering Christ, but upon being instructed by the figure to give up his penance and to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, Simon realizes that he has been duped by the devil, who is here, too, portrayed by Pinal, wearing what is obviously a false beard and a garment that does little to disguise her feminine body. Time passes ambiguously in the film, but we learn in her address to Simon that he has now stood upon his column for eight years, eight months, and eight days. Having realized the error of his perception, however, Simon again scornfully refuses the devil. Frustrated a second time, she can only promise him that he has still not seen the last of her, before shooting him in the forehead with a stone propelled by a slingshot. As she vanishes into a cloud of smoke, a trick edit transforms one of her lambs into a frog, while Simon himself concludes that he still has ‘far to go,’ after having mistaken the wolf for the lamb.

Consequently, he determines to intensify his penance by standing on one foot until the Lord commands him otherwise.

Another peasant man, who was first met cursing Simon for not accepting his gift of goat milk, is the next to visit the stylite, in order to ask him the favour of blessing his pregnant goat. When Simon replies, ‘And bless you, too,’ however, the impatient goatherd becomes angry that Simon has blessed him and his goat in a single gesture. Proclaiming that he still likes Simon anyway, the peasant asks the saint if his belly doesn’t ache from hunger, to which the ascetic responds that he requires little sustenance, and that he excretes dryly, ‘much like your goats.’7 Played by Jesús Fernández, who was himself no more the three feet tall, the goatherd is far from Simon elevated on his column. He walks off, shrugging and saying, ‘All I understood was dryly,’ a small bit of wry humour, which succinctly illustrates the insurmountability of the distance between them. One literally cannot understand the other.

The saint’s next visitor is the monk whom Simon previously cast away for looking at the devil as she walked past earlier in the film. After apologizing for his behaviour, the monk laments that the heathen are advancing upon Rome, and that man will do terrible things for that which he thinks is his.

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