About an hour into Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic drama The Milky Way, two men, a Jesuit and a Jansenist, argue over the Christian doctrine of irresistible grace. It becomes so heated that a duel is challenged and the two draw swords for a fight to the death. After a time, the camera moves onto two vagrants who are having a similar debate but in a much gentler manner. While we watch them, we see the first two men, having put down their swords, walking away as friends. One could interpret this moment as if to say that the first two men were hypocrites, that their religious convictions weren’t really so strong as to merit real violence and that when push came to shove their hearts weren’t really in it. Or you could take it to mean that Bunuel, a man known for making films strongly satirizing religion, has softened his views and now believes that there is room for religious and atheistic views in society. Or perhaps these beliefs just aren’t worth killing each other over. But being Bunuel this scene is followed by one in which we watch a sainted priest’s corpse pulled out of his grave and burned when they find some of his manuscripts containing what is now considered heresies.
Heresies of varying stripes are what The Milky Way is all about. It follows those two vagrants, Jean (Laurent Terzieff) and Pierre (Paul Frankeur), on a pilgrimage from Paris to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Along the way, they meet an assortment of religious figures from throughout time and place, all of whom are either arguing about or actually committing various sings against the Catholic Church.
Using interesting visual arrangements and editing techniques, Bunuel shines a light on the hypocrisy of religion in general and the Catholic Church specifically, but he never quite completely condemns the notion of God entirely and in some ways seems to embrace if not outright spirituality then at least a searching for something more.
Our vagabonds come across a strange assortment of characters. There is the pompous manager of a fancy restaurant berating his staff over the divinity of Jesus Christ, who then angrily throws out Jean and Pierre when they ask for a scrap of food. They sit to watch a group of school children perform various heresies and proclaim them “anathema” (a formal curse given by the Church). A Priscillian sect dress in Roman tunics denounces their physical bodies then have an orgy.
When one of the pilgrims curses a car that would not stop for them, it promptly crashes and lights a-fire. In the backseat sits The Devil himself who says they might as well take the dead driver’s shoes as he no longer needs them. They steal a fisherman’s clothes and find a rosary in its pocket. Not being Catholic, they shoot it with their rifle’s only to get it back with the Virgin Mary appears to them. Later, they encounter Jesus Christ who tells his followers a few parables and heals two blind men.
Bunuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière reportedly did a lot of research into Church history and its many heretics. A closing title card notes that all of the heresies depicted in the film are based on historical fact and that it often used Church writings in the script. But the way Bunuel films and edits, it all comes out like fantasy. After several years of making more straight-forward narrative films, The Milky Way finds the director back in surrealist mode creating a dream-scape narrative whose plot makes little sense but taken as symbolic satire and religious critique, it is quite fascinating.
It has some very interesting visuals and the non-linear plot creates some interesting juxtapositions. It is a film that has a lot to say and I’ll be digesting it for some time. As an intellectual exercise, it is highly recommended, but as entertainment, your interest in Christian or even Catholic history may affect your enjoyment of it.
Kino Lorber presents The Milky Way with a 1.66: aspect ratio and a 1080p transfer. Extras include an audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton, a critical analysis by Professor Peter Evans, plus an interview with Jean-Claude Carriere and a booklet essay.