At first sight (and with hindsight too, as the films have reached us in the wrong order), Nazarin … looks simply like a more ambiguous version of Viridiana. (p. 194)
The ambiguity lies in the fact that Buñuel refuses either to approve or condemn his hero, with the result that the film can be read in two different ways. Either we must take in that Nazarin is a fool and his saintliness futile and absurd, or else that his perseverance in the face of adversity is a living proof that faith is its own justification and reward, and the things of the spirit better and stronger than those of the flesh. Taken singly neither of these readings is satisfactory…. [If] Nazarin is to be condemned, who is to be saved? If he is wrong, who on earth is right? If he is futile, then what on earth is effective? The Revolution? Possibly, but Buñuel does not say so. In fact he offers no answer at all, even partial. Just a portrait of a sympathetic but other-worldly priest, and a fresco of a brutal but undeniably authentic world. We have no choice, therefore, but to accept both incompatible readings simultaneously, as hypothesis and antithesis, and mediate, for what it's worth, our own synthesis to the problem.
This is the answer, or substitute for an answer, that Brecht provides at the end of The Good Woman of Setzuan—"the curtains closed and all the questions open"—and more or less the same as that in Viridiana, where at the end Viridiana sits down to play cards with Jorge and Ramona, and the problem is uneasily shelved for the duration. But Brecht did believe that solutions were possible, and Buñuel in Viridiana left the audience in no doubt of his hatred for his heroine and all she stood for. In Nazarin however the basic moral ambiguity, Nazarin contra mundum, is not intended to lead to a solution, but is an end in itself. Buñuel's dialectic is all antithesis here, and his favourite weapon, beside physical shock, is paradox. (pp. 194-95)
Somewhere, I feel, Buñuel does see a solution. But it is an imaginary possibility which impresses itself on the film only by its absence. There could be a world, he implies, in which Beatriz did not have to choose between impotent frustration with a virginal priest and brutalised submission to a possessive husband. This world would be the utopia of the anarchist, but, realisable or not as a utopia, it is certainly not real within the film. Whatever the intellectual possibilities of an alternative, the real world for Buñuel, and the immediate world of his imagination, is a brutal and stupid one….
Because Buñuel's immediate vision covers only what is contained within the circle, and embraces it only in its most crassly material form, the problematic aspect of the film is easily obscured. The spectator is only struck by it after the film has ended, when he tries to piece together what it all actually means, who is right and who is wrong. The weakness of Nazarin is that it does require piecing together afterwards. (p. 195)
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "Film Reviews: 'Nazarin'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1963 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 32, No. 4, Autumn, 1963, pp. 194-95.