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A 1965 film by Luis Bunuel, shot in Mexico, and set in the fifth century, which details the asceticism and temptations of St. Simon Stylites, a famously self-denying saint who grew closer to god by sitting on a pillar in the desert for 30-odd years, eating only lettuce and drinking only water, and valiantly resisting the efforts of the Adversary to tempt him into impropriety, the while. It was released under the Spanish title Simon del Desierto, in Spanish, with English subtitles

Bunuel was able to combine most effectively his talents for surrealism, dark humour, iconoclasm, and profound image making in this film.

Simon, who is sitting on his pillar in order to be nearer to the Deity, takes his sainthood very seriously. Towards the start of the film, he loses a tooth, and after due consideration and prayer for guidance, blesses the tooth in order to ensure its salvation in the afterlife.

His religious constancy is tested, however, as the Devil turns up in the guise of a sweet-faced school-girl, arriving in a coffin which mysteriously snakes its way up to the foot of his pillar in a style reminiscent of the cinematography in Bunuel's earlier overtly surrealist works, such as Un Chien Andalou.

She attempts, by various strategies, insulting and poking fun at him, to get him to step down off his pillar to the common earth (perhaps symbolising giving up his sainthood) but Simon assiduously resists, turning aside her provocations with scriptural wisdom and heroic moral resolve, and seeing through her many guises (she appears as priest, shepherd, and, in the last, as Jesus himself.)

The film was to have continued, with Simon finding an even higher pillar, by the coast, but the production ran into financial difficulties, and was cut short. Bunuel made the most of this by having Simon finally concede to his opponent, who rewards the fifth century ascetic with a visit to Hell, which turns out to be a fashionable 20th century nightclub of the worst kind, whose blank-faced hedonistic patrons dance mechanically to awful disco music by "The Radioactive Flesh."

One feature of the film which many religionists found provoking was that Simon's pillar is shown to be made completely from human excrement. Even saints have to shit, right? And 37 years is a hell of a long time!

The possible interpretations of the film are legion - does the pillar of shit represent the fact that it's our humanity that brings us closer to god, or is it a jibe at the hypocrisy of those who attempt, by unfragrant means, to elevate themselves above the rest?

Bunuel, who famously said "Thank God I'm an atheist", has been no help. Perhaps his intention is to foster the ambiguity, and provoke thought in the mind of the viewer.

Simon: Claudio Brook
The Devil: Hortensia Santovena
with: Silvia Pinal, Jesus Fernandez, Enrique Alvarez Félix

Director: Luis Bunuel
Screenplay: Buñuel and Julio Alejandro
Cinematography: Gabriel Figueroa
Running time: 43 min.

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