For anyone interested in Bunuel, Simon del Desierto is essential because this is the one film in which Bunuel takes as his immediate subject that which has played so important a part in the background of all his films: Christianity….
Simon is obviously neither Viridiana nor Nazarin: he is a powerful, fascinating figure, and Bunuel's treatment of him is generally sympathetic. Nevertheless, the film, intellectually a dilemma, is cynical and pessimistic. On the one hand, there is the nihilism of the 20th century which we all know; on the other, there is Simon's world—which is not entirely typical….
One of the most interesting tensions in any Bunuel film is between the elegant, composed construction of the film, so apparently slick and impersonal, and the pervading subjective obsessions….
Precisely what makes Simon del Desierto so interesting and important is that the Christian images do not merely float in the background but comprise the very subject of the film. It is as though Bunuel, after privately ridding himself of his own religion, now takes a careful look at the godless world of the 20th century, contrasts it with a simplistic Christian world-view, and is plainly horrified by what he sees….
Bunuel's pessimism is somewhat hollow, rather easy, even a bit theatrical or rhetorical. The pessimism in Simon del Desierto comes from the dilemma of an intellectually impossible Christianity versus a spiritually empty, meaningless and mad modern materialism. That there are other possibilities (an intellectually viable Christianity or a responsible humanism, for example) Bunuel never considers.
Even for those who do not much care for Bunuel, Simon del Desierto is a powerful statement of an existential no-exit; for those who do like Bunuel, this film is absolutely essential for a complete understanding of the man's thought and work to date. And for anyone who cares about films, Simon del Desierto is the work of a master craftsman: it is not only serenely accomplished, it also has some of the tensions and haunting reverberations of great art.
Brian Murphy, "Reviews: 'Simon of the Desert'" (© copyright Brian Murphy 1969; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 15, No. 10, July, 1969, p. 39.