In an ancient, arid wasteland, the anchorite Simon stands day and night atop a giant pillar, scourging himself, rejecting his mother and surviving on a sustenance diet. The poor of the area come to him seeking bleassings and miracles; the religious elders gain spiritual balm from his example. Simon thinks himself unworthy to take holy orders, and is plagued not only by begrudgers who try to prove his hypocrisy, but by his own inner doubts, fears and distractions. The chief of these latter are the temptations of the Devil, who comes to see him three times. At first she is dressed in a sailor suit and suspenders; next as a lamb-kicking Jesus; and finally in a mobile coffin.
Bunuel is usually, simplistically characterised as an anti-clerical or anti-bourgeois satirist, but this is to miss the ambivalence behind a statement such as 'Thank God I'm an atheist'. From the opening scene, Simon is compromised - he breaks his vigil to accept the gift of a wealthy benefactor. His miraculous abilities don't change a barbarously unjust world in which robbers' hands are lopped off, and the religious hierarchy have the murderous powers of the Inquistion. His miracles don't transform the souls of those he helps, instead amplifying their material self-interest. As MacHeath suggested 'Food is the first thing, morals follow on'. There are doubts about Simon's integrity, the extremity of which is often comical, and which is powerless against the sexual petulance of the Devil.
Nevertheless, this very human frailty and hopelessness makes this lisping, Hispanic Charlton Heston quite sympathetic - he does have suernatural powers, which he uses for the good; and he is quicker to forgive than those in religious authority. The framing of Simon against the sky constantly cuts him off from the desert world and community he looks down on, but he achieves, on occasion, an ecstasy they have no access to.
'Simon' is one of Bunuel's funniest and most perfect films, bursting with memorable scenes, such as the dwarf eulogising his goat's teats to an innocent young priest; the frothing exorcism of a hypocritical elder; or the dream-memories Simon has his former, youthful life. The silent onlooking of his mother on the margins gives the film a melancholy, while the slow, steady camera moves towards Simon are appropriately dizzying. Although this comic look at relgious fervour anticipates the irreverance of Monty Python's 'Life Of Brian', Bunuel never breaks the integrity of his world, never gives his characters a modern consciousness, is faithful to the look, smells, emptiness and sounds of the desert (crunching sand, whistling winds, bleating animals, bells etc.) and its people.