“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”–Matthew 10:34-36
DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel
PLOT: Two tramps follow the ancient pilgrimage road leading from France to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of the apostle James are supposed to be interred. Along the way they meet strange characters from various times who debate ancient Catholic heresies, a child with a stigmata, an angel of death, and a nun voluntarily undergoing a crucifixion. Also scattered throughout the film are recreations of fictional and historical events, including dramatization of an Inquisition trial, a cameo by the Marquis de Sade, and scenes from the Gospels.
- In retrospect, director Luis Buñuel realized that The Milky Way formed the first part of a trilogy about “the search for truth” along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). The subsequent two films use the same fragmented, non-linear narrative style pioneered in The Milky Way.
- The film is exhaustively researched, with many of the episodes composed of direct quotes from the Bible or the writings of heretics.
- Released while the general strike and student protests of May 1968 were still fresh in France’s mind and a spirit of liberal revolution was in the air, some leftists were not happy that one of their own had chosen this moment to make a non-political film about the history of heresy in the Catholic church. According to anecdote, Buñuel’s novelist friend Julio Cortazar accused the director of having completed the film with financing from the Vatican.
- Although the film is often blasphemous on its surface, it was well-received by the Catholic Church, who even intervened with the Italian censors to reverse their decision to ban the film. This was an unexpected reaction, as the Vatican had declared Buñuel’s 1961 film Viridiana “blasphemous”.
- With its large, almost epic cast, it’s inevitable that several French actors with significant contributions in the weird movie arena appeared in cameo roles, including Delpine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) as a prostitute, Julien Guiomar (Léolo) as a priest, and Michel Piccoli (La Grande Bouffe, Dillinger is Dead) as the Marquis de Sade.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The execution of a pope by a gang of anarchists, a scene that leads to the film’s funniest and most unexpected punchline.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In The Milky Way two worldly pilgrims make their way through a strange, heresy-obsessed world in which every maître d’ is an expert theologian and Renaissance fops duel to the death over arcane philosophical doctrines, while any random stranger they meet may actually be God, an angel, or the fulfillment of a recent prophecy.
Hollywood-style VHS trailer for La Voie Lactée
COMMENTS: Of all the great directors, Luis Buñuel was the greatest prankster. His son, Juan Luis Buñuel, relates how his father and Salvador Dali used read reviews of their infamous first film, Un Chien Andalou, out loud to each other, laughing at the critics’ interpretations. The duo had carefully crafted the film to be completely random and to resist any symbolic reading, while at the same time recognizing that the literati would be unable to resist the urge to demonstrate their great intellects by insisting that they had uncovered its hidden meanings. Anyone should approach discussing a Buñuel film with trepidation; chances are good that the director will be laughing, from beyond the grave, at any insights that might arise.
The Milky Way, especially, is a difficult film to make any sort of definitive pronouncements about. It’s a religious film made by a rabid atheist. It’s a work of such intense referentiality, filled with obscure Biblical references and quotes from other texts, that the temptation to find a connection between what’s going on onscreen and what’s being quoted from, to try make a thesis out of the movie, can be overwhelming. It’s also a film of high ambiguity; Buñuel gives equal weight to the arguments of the heretics and the dogmas of the orthodox. He dramatizes strange episodes in which scoffers are graced with legitimate miracles, and (in the famous final scene) the most devout are granted a miracle that may not be a miracle at all.
The Milky Way concerns the travels of two tramps, Pierre and Jean, on their way to Santiago in hopes of begging alms from the devout come to see the bones of St. James. The two are worldly men. The younger man is an atheist. The older is casually pious, but not above stealing a ham or the shoes off of a dead man. Everyone the two encounter in their journeys possesses an intense and passionate knowledge of Catholic theology and the history of heresy. A priest in a tavern defends transubstantiation—the mystery doctrine that says that the communion host is not a symbol, but the literal body of Christ—yet during the course of his argument he gets confused and convinces himself of the opposite. The two camp out near a site where an ancient heretical sect profess their Manichean beliefs, in Latin, before the congregation dissolves into an orgy. At a fancy hotel, the waitstaff debates Jesus’ dual nature as man and God, while refusing to donate a bite to eat to the passing beggars. But the beggars do find charity, food and wine at a country school holding a pageant where the children recite religious anathemas. They then come across a car wreck and meet an angel of death, who plays them a radio broadcast from hell. They pass a church inside which a nun is being crucified, and are pressed into service as doubles in a duel between a Jesuit and a Jansenist, who exchange philosophical jabs as they fence. They meet two other men along the road, and this pair somehow wanders though time into a medieval town where they taunt a bishop by denying the Trinity and insisting God is one while he is burning the bones of a heretic. Later, they are visited by the Virgin Mary after shooting a rosary with a hunting rifle, and meet a priest in an inn who can magically travel through walls to lecture them on the virtue of virginity. When the tramps arrive in Santiago, they discover there are no pilgrims there, because it had been discovered that the bones in the reliquary didn’t belong to the apostle James after all, but to the heretic Priscillian.
It’s a strange enough plot, but what really makes the movie difficult to follow for most people is the dialogue, much of which is lifted verbatim from Biblical or other religious texts. The film is full of exchanges such as “Do you deny that the righteous man has sufficient grace for the accomplishment of good?” “Yes, I deny it. The will is dominated by delectation.” Such dialogue baffles viewers who go in with the preconception that they should understand what is being said in a movie. But to Buñuel, the “meaning” behind these esoteric statements is beside the point: they exist at such a high level of abstraction that they might as well be nonsense to the average person. He does not care which side is correct, or even suggest that it’s possible to be “correct” on a subject like predestination. Both the dogmas and the heresies are harmlessly absurd on their face; but what is dangerously absurd is that the proponent of each of the competing doctrines is willing to kill anyone who disagrees with him. After all, not even the most stern theologian asserts that the faithful must understand the exact mechanism through which Christ manifests himself in the Communion wafer to achieve salvation, any more than a person has to understand how the internal combustion engine works to drive to the corner store and pick up a loaf of bread. These deadly doctrinal debates are ultimately about theological trivia. On this level, the movie is clearly anti-religious, in that it’s against institutionalized dogma. The point is made clear in the dramatic incident from the Inquisition where a monk unwisely questions the justice of burning heretics—then, with a sick feeling, suddenly realizes that vocalizing that very question has put him at risk of sharing their fate.
If I’ve made The Milky Way sound rather dry and cerebral, then I haven’t misrepresented it. It’s a film that is in many ways easier to admire than to love. For an alleged satire, it has only a couple of good laughs; it’s only slightly funnier than the New Testament. It’s erudite, but the obscurity of its references is itself a very dry joke, a gag that’s clever rather than amusing. In one of the earliest scenes, the tramps meet a man on the road who tells them to go mate with a prostitute and name the children they conceive “Ye Are Not My People” and “No More Mercy.” When they reach the outskirts of Santiago, they meet a prostitute, one who curiously desires to bear children for each of them with those names. The entire scenario sounds like an elaborate Surrealist joke, but without being told, few would recognize these as the names God commanded the prophet Hosea to give his children in Hosea 1. Knowing the source of the quote does not make the incident any less surreal in its effect. It’s a bit of trivia that emphasizes the slick way Buñuel appropriates religious fragments, hides and transforms them in the narrative. But knowing this esoterica only increases our appreciation of the film, not our enjoyment of it; the usage is clever but not meaningful. I find the film ultimately a rather cold exercise, appealing almost entirely to the head, bypassing the heart entirely.
It’s no surprise that Buñuel would be attracted to the theme of heresy. He was a heretic among heretics, a meta-heretic. He was in the inner circle of the French Surrealists, a movement that opposed every form of authority—political, religious, artistic, psychological—and even sought to overthrow the basic human concept of “meaning.” Buñuel officially resigned from the Surrealists in 1936 over political and artistic disagreements. He was too intensely individualistic to find a home in any movement; he refused to conform to the demands of nonconformism. The Marxists in his political circle considered The Milky Way a kind of betrayal, viewing Buñuel as wasting his time making an esoteric, apolitical religious film at a crucial moment in the history of the Movement. If someone was going to waste their time on such a passe subject as religion, it should at least be savage, polemical attack on the Church’s current role as a political player. Buñuel’s film, instead, it was a deeply ambiguous meditation that was clearly opposed to intolerance, but was at the same time filled with a passionate longing for something mysterious, an immaterial yen that could be described as a religious impulse.
The Milky Way manages to be irreverent about Christianity, making jokes out of Papal executions and Jesus’ deliberations over whether he should shave his beard, while at the same time being ironically respectful of it. The film relativizes Catholic orthodoxy by juxtaposing it with equally plausible dissent, suggesting that, but for the accidents of history, today’s catechism could itself be heresy. Yet, the film is also extensively, almost reverently, researched and accurate in its dramatizations of Biblical passages and of the theological debates. Even if Buñuel does not believe in it, he takes Christianity seriously, as a worthy opponent. This director finds the Catholic mysteries fascinating and moving, and dangerous, either to believe or to disbelieve.
Buñuel constantly keeps us off guard; just when we expect him to take a jab the Church, he gives us a scene that’s either ambiguous, or that acknowledges the beauty of Her rituals and beliefs. Take the way he approaches miracles. In one scene, the younger tramp stands in the rain dares God to strike him dead; he emerges from the test unscathed, but a bolt of lightning hits a hut behind him, leaving it up to us to determine whether divine intervention occurred. A heretic receives a visitation from the Virgin Mary, who gives him a rosary. This event unequivocally occurs (as much as anything in this movie can be said to “really” happen), and it moves the scoffer to tears, and changes his character from that point on. And, in the famous, marvelously ambiguous final scene, Jesus heals two blind men, as in Mark 8:22-26—or does he? The conclusion is masterfully open-ended, a perfect way to end a film that has militantly refused to take sides from the very beginning.
It’s ironic that, despite the surface attacks on Catholicism and the historical hypocrisy and intolerance of the Church, the film seems to resonate more with the religious viewer than with the irreligious one. The columnist Spengler suggests that this is because the Surrealist world Buñuel presents here echoes “the strangeness and wonder of the biblical world, that is, a world in which the Divine is always manifest… a world in which you may be walking down the road and meet a man, and the man is in fact an angel, but the angel turns out to be God himself.” That’s true, but it’s worth emphasizing that the types of Biblical episodes Buñuel chooses to emphasize are what I called in my comments on El Topo “honey in the lion moments.” They are moments that are strange and leap out because of their incongruity with the rest of the religious narrative, like Samson’s discovery of the beehive in the lion’s carcass. They appear in the sacred story, but stand out precisely because they don’t contribute to the religious argument. Like the sudden roadside encounter with the angel of death, they are events whose extraneous and random nature makes them seem more otherworldly, more legitimately mystical. Buñuel not only uses such moments, he even goes out of his way to manufacture them, for example, by lifting the quotation from Hosea out of its context and making it the (utterly random) basis of the tramps’ story. Buñuel is interested in mystery, in what lies beneath, not in religion in and of itself. He sifts the mysterious element from the Biblical story and treats it respectfully; he casts aside the dogmatic, “rational” element and mocks it gently.
This director explores the same themes of the mystery of existence in his secular works; it strikes me as somewhat strange, but oddly fitting, that he should find a whole new audience just because the characters in The Milky Way sometimes wear mitres or clerical collars. Buñuel the prankster once said that, as the final joke of his life, he planned to gather all his atheist friends around his deathbed, then shock them by having a priest enter and administer last rites to him. It’s possible the strangely conceived religious movie The Milky Way was the director’s way of springing that joke early, while he could enjoy the shocked looks on his friends’ faces.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“….genial enough, and the tone of cool irony is charming and very distinctive, but an awful lot of Buñuel’s little jokes are clerical and enigmatic.”–Pauline Kael
“…dangerously close to being all notations and no text.”–J. Hoberman, Sight and Sound
IMDB LINK: La voie lactée (1969)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Milky Way (1969) – The Criterion Collection – The Criterion page gives the lowdown on all the DVD features, and adds penetrating essays by novelist Carlos Fuentes and critic/essayist Mark Polizzotti.
Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way: Crucifiction – A very detailed, literary analysis of the film by Alan Dale.
The biblical world of Luis Bunuel – Spengler argues that “it takes an agony of doubt to produce a great narrative work of art on a religious subject.”
La Voie Lactée – A few of the more obscure references are elucidated in “Bible Films Blog”‘s review of the film
DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection edition (buy) comes with a booklet featuring an interview with Buñuel. The DVD itself contains the trailer; An Atheist, Thanks to God, a documentary with several of Buñuel’s friends and admirers; and interviews with co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière and film scholar Ian Christie, for a total of about one hour of commentary and reflections.
The film is also available in a Region 2 only 8-disc Buñuel box set (buy) along with Belle de Jour, The Diary of a Chambermaid, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire, The Phantom of Liberty, Tristana and The Young One. I have no information about extras in the box set.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Andrew.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)