In the mid-sixties, Luis Buñuel became fascinated by the youth rebellion that culminated with the events of May 1968 in Paris and also manifested itself in music, fashion, opposition to institutions, family, and state. Buñuel felt that the forces of his own youth were moving again. As a young man, he had turned his back on the traditional values of his Spanish origins—religion and patriotism—and joined the French surrealists in their search for “the point where all contradictions are resolved,” privileging dreams, the unconscious, and the revolutionary. What Buñuel brought to surrealism was a deep Spanish tradition of anarchism in an authoritarian society, blended with a sense of creative revolt, heroic madness, and comedic disrespect. Don Quixote and the confusion of truth and dream. Goya and the privilege of dreams and nightmares set against the critique of power and mores.
Buñuel was different from his French surrealist friends. They translated revolt into ideas. Buñuel preferred images as the most powerful incentive to rebellion. But images themselves could be conventional, comforting, orthodox. Buñuel’s cinema became both a critique and an affirmation of the power of sight. The first image of his first picture, Un chien andalou, has Buñuel himself slicing a woman’s eye as a shadow bisects the moon. In film after film, the blind are mocked, chastised, or sanctified. But it is in The Milky Way that they culminate a film by first being miraculously restored to sight by the hands of Christ and then, as they follow the Savior, proving unable to cross a ditch without the help of their blind-man’s canes. Miracles, said Don Quixote to Sancho Panza, are things that seldom occur.
Which means that, sometimes, they do occur. Luis Buñuel had a frightening fear of and a fearful faith in the power of film. His idea of the perfect motion picture was to project onto a blank wall, while sitting in a darkened room, the images that passed through one’s mind. He felt that this ultimate visual freedom was obstructed by the tyrannical conventions of a hypocritical social order based on money. But this was a most demanding conviction for Buñuel’s work, in which he set out to give moving pictorial reality to ideas, beyond their verbal or philosophical expression but always in a living tension with all that opposes the image and its message or intention. Buñuel was faithful to this moral and aesthetic conviction as he visualized violence (Las Hurdes, Los olvidados), sexual obsession (L’âge d’or, El, Belle de jour, That Obscure Object of Desire), fetishism (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Diary of a Chambermaid), loneliness (Robinson Crusoe), faith (Nazarín), conventions (The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), and, in all his work, the mystery of men’s and women’s relationships to themselves, to one another, and to the world.
The Milky Way is both unique in Buñuel’s filmography and resonant with all the obsessions I have just mentioned. Two contemporary pilgrims start out, as pilgrims have done since the Middle Ages, on the road from the Rue Saint-Jacques, in Paris, to Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain. It is the traditional picaresque format of the down-and-out surviving as road bums. It is also the even more traditional tale of the knight-errant and his squire in search of faith and honor. Buñuel blends these traditions into a sort of filmic space-time continuum. The pilgrims are contemporary. But time and space accompany them in a perpetual present and a simultaneous geography. The protagonists of heresy and orthodoxy act out their beliefs in ancient Palestine, in early medieval Europe, in the Age of Reason, and in today’s inns and swank restaurants, and on its superhighways. The Holy Virgin, her son Jesus and Christ’s kid brothers, the Marquis de Sade, the Jansenist dueling the Jesuit, Satan himself (or is it Death?) dressed as a rock star, an impertinent theological -maître?d’ and his waiters, a bleeding child by the wayside, a wildly stiff schoolmarm and her robotic little pupils reciting anathemas, the pope facing a firing squad, the Whore of Babylon waylaying travelers, sententious bishops and fugitive mad priests—this fantastic cast of characters, in itself a tongue-and-cheek parody of Hollywood’s “cast of thousands,” visually acts out, before our very eyes, the arid abstractions of Christian heresy. Was there ever such a thing as the Holy Trinity? Was Christ God, man, and Holy Ghost simultaneously, in sequence, or was he only, at all times, God the Father masquerading as a mortal being, so as to be recognized? Was Jesus only the human body of a Divine Ghost? Were his sufferings mere appearances? If he suffered, was he a god? If he was a god, how could he suffer? Was Christ simply a particle of God’s mind? Are we allowed to distinguish between the acts of Jesus the man and the words of Christ the god (as the blind men in the film fail to do)? Was Christ really two men, one born of God the Father, the other of Mary the Mother? Did Mary conceive the way light passes through a pane of glass? Did Jesus have kid brothers?
As Buñuel gives visual reality to these theological abstractions, he does so with vast resources of wit and humor. The absconding madman believes that Christ is in the host the way the rabbit is in the pâté. The pope’s death by firing squad is something we’ll never see. The discussion of theology by the maître d’ and his waiters is in the grand tradition of slapstick comedy. The battling theologians crossing swords for Jesuitical orthodoxy and Jansenistic heresy are a comic version of the Errol Flynn–Basil Rathbone duels reduced to absurdist reasoning. And Mary asks Jesus to please not shave his beard.
But along with the comedic sense, Buñuel is here grappling with the contradictions between faith and faithlessness. The young heretic who dons the hunter’s garb and shoots at the rosary receives it back from the hands of the Virgin Mary and lets tears stream down his heretical face. Indeed, as Pierre tells Jean when lightning strikes, God knows all, but we don’t know what he knows. Only an artist of Buñuel’s caliber could bring all of these meanings into a seamless visual continuum respecting the mystery of both the orthodox and the heretical, while denouncing the dogmatic certitudes of both.
“My hatred of science and my loathing of technology will one day lead me to this absurd belief in God,” says an episodic character who speaks for Buñuel himself, as the grand master would again as he lay dying in a Mexico City hospital, in 1983, discussing theology for a whole week with his close friend the Jesuit brother Julian Pablo. “Thank God I’m an atheist.” He’s probably now in a heretical heaven full of Docetists, Nestorians, Monarchian Patripassianists, and other assorted gnostics.