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From the moment Luis Buñuel released his iconic Un chien andalou in 1929, ushering avant-garde cinema out of its infancy with the slice of an eyeball, it was clear how much he relished shocking his audiences. But audiences had changed by the time of The Milky Way, four decades later. The aggressiveness of Un chien andalou and L’âge d’or (1930) had been well assimilated by generations of filmgoers (even if L’âge d’or could still not legally be exhibited in France), and what seems most shocking about The Milky Way today—in the context of the freethinking, free-loving Paris of post–May ’68, with its surrealist graffiti and its trinity of Althusser, Barthes, and Lacan—is that Buñuel should have taken on so seemingly irrelevant a topic as Christianity.
And not just Christianity but one of its most cherished shibboleths: the pilgrimage to the town of Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain. For more than a millennium, the Camino de Santiago has drawn hundreds of thousands of travelers annually, their final destination the cathedral in which the remains of the apostle Saint James are said to be preserved (another name for the Milky Way is the Way of Saint James). Although many travelers make the trip as tourists rather than as pilgrims, there is no doubt that the scent of incense hovers thick over the road to Santiago. What was Buñuel doing making a film about that?
But, of course, he was doing only what he had done repeatedly since gaining sufficient independence: following a popular success, in this case Belle de jour (1967), with a more personal and less accessible work—as he had with Simon of the Desert (1965) after Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), and would again with the enigmatic The Phantom of Liberty (1974) on the heels of the Oscar-laureled The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). It is as if Buñuel saw these masterworks, the ones that define his legacy, mainly as the ransom for the puzzling, idiosyncratic films he really wanted to make.
Religious references are a commonplace in Buñuel’s films, from the desiccated bishops of L’âge d’or onward. Some, such as Nazarín (1959), with its hapless defrocked priest, or Simon of the Desert, with its obstinate column dweller, or Viridiana (1961), with its morbidly repressed novice, even dwell on the subject at length. But The Milky Way is Buñuel’s only work to be devoted entirely to Catholic dogma itself. Or, more to the point, it is devoted to the six primary mysteries of the faith and to the objections (or heresies, depending on your view) they have inspired. These are: the dual nature of Christ (man or divinity?), the three-in-one nature of the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, transubstantiation (is the host literally Christ’s body or only a metaphor?), the concept of free will, and the existence of evil (if God is omnipotent, how could he allow sin and temptation?). With each of its episodes serving as a kind of dialogue between the orthodox view and its heretical counterpart, the film establishes a middle ground between feature entertainment and cinematic essay. Buñuel later recounted how he and coscenarist Jean-Claude Carrière pored over various tomes about the church and its apostasies to assemble their script, and the closing credits make a point of certifying that every quotation is authentic.
The Milky Way follows two French vagabonds, a modern-day Laurel and Hardy engagingly incarnated by Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff, as they hitchhike to Santiago from Paris. No true believers, our heroes, blandly named Pierre and Jean—an indicator of their everyman status—have taken to the highway with frankly opportunistic motives: to cadge alms off pilgrims at the shrine. The action flits constantly between present and past, sometimes mixing the two with apparent abandon. So it is that, along the way, the vagabonds encounter, bypass, or mysteriously coexist with figures representing major aspects of Christian history and mythology, including a Spanish inquisitor, the Whore of Babylon, the fourth-century ascetic Priscillian (the first Christian to be executed for heresy, acted with aplomb by Carrière), the Virgin Mary, and Christ himself, played by Bernard Verley with the right dose of mama’s-boy smugness.
In terms of narrative structure, The Milky Way inaugurates a series of late works that use what the director called “discontinuous continuity,” in which sequences do not so much gather into a cohesive whole as constantly split off into new tangents. To some degree, this fits into a tradition embracing both the Spanish picaresque novel and its twentieth-century counterpart, the road movie, from It Happened One Night to The Milky Way’s exact contemporary Easy Rider. But it also demonstrates Buñuel’s fairly unique approach to narrative in his final films, one that he pushed to extremes in The Phantom of Liberty and that has since become mother’s milk to fans of Monty Python, The Simpsons, and Richard Linklater’s cult favorite Slacker, among others. I’m tempted to theorize that, in these final films, Buñuel was unlearning the storytelling techniques he had picked up through years of producing potboilers (along with some indisputable masterpieces) in Mexico. But it’s no doubt more accurate to say that he was returning to his roots, rediscovering the narrative fluidity of his surrealist classics. There is a wonderful transition early in The Milky Way when Pierre, in response to a comment about his beard, muses that it reminds him of what his mother used to say—jump to a scene of Jesus at home, being dissuaded by Mary from shaving his trademark facial hair. The slam-bang non sequiturs of Un chien andalou are not far behind.
A detailed synopsis of the film would only lessen the pleasure of discovery. What is worth stressing is how damn funny Buñuel makes it all. Despite the weightiness of the subject, this is one of his most comic works, prompting one critic at the time to call him “the most hilarious chronicler of the human tragedy.” As with most of Buñuel’s films, the genius resides less in the plot line than in the details, the director’s uncanny instinct for surprise, such as when Jean’s fantasy about a pope’s execution is “overheard” by the man next to him, or when a peasant approaches the two itinerants and, out of the blue, addresses them in Latin. And even when Buñuel gets a bit heavy-handed—Priscillian’s disquisition on the evils of the flesh segues into an orgy among his followers—he still manages to keep us baited, curious about the next bend in the road.
Part of the humorous effect is due to the unflappable deadpan of our two heroes: no matter who or what they encounter, from whatever time or place, they accept it with the equanimity of those who have learned to just go with the flow. This lack of surprise is not merely a comic conceit, however. Behind the period costumes and settings, what Buñuel is displaying to his protagonists and to us is as current as it is timeless: a panorama of human intolerance, of man’s boundless capacity for rigidity and nitpicking. In sequence after sequence, characters expound their point of view, lecturing their listeners—or the camera—like professors before a captive audience of seminarians. What keeps it all from being entirely laughable is the knowledge that the consequences of disagreeing with these
positions by even a hairbreadth have proven so repetitively grisly.
Despite the ecclesiastical trappings, moreover, intolerance here does not stop at the religious variety. Pauline Kael, focusing on the surface aspects of the film, wrote that The Milky Way stages Buñuel’s “Spanish schoolboy’s view of life joined to an adult atheist’s disbelief in redemption.” But in the doctrinaire atmosphere of 1968 France, where it was produced, the inquisitorial fervor and self-convinced pronouncements of its characters must have sounded not unlike the absolutist rhetoric then spewing from student bullhorns—something Buñuel no doubt had in mind when he wrote: “The Milky Way is neither for nor against anything at all . . . The film is above all a journey through fanaticism, where each person obstinately clings to his own particle of truth, ready, if need be, to kill or to die for it. The road traveled by the two pilgrims can represent, finally, any political or even aesthetic ideology.”
Earlier, I called The Milky Way one of Buñuel’s more personal films. The dichotomy it rehearses between orthodoxy and nonconformity applies not only to his upbringing as a rebellious son of Catholic Spain but also to his subsequent experiences in Paris, Los Angeles, and Mexico City, as a dissident member of André Breton’s rigidly controlled surrealist group, a Communist fellow traveler, a reluctant cog in the Hollywood machine, and a workaday director in Mexico, pumping out churros for his bread and butter. Descriptions of The Milky Way often note that the two vagabonds travel through time as well as space, but for most of the film, history keeps to its own boundaries, “unrolling behind them like a comic strip,” as one biographer put it. Only as Pierre and Jean near the border of Buñuel’s native land do past and present truly start to interact, a detail that has its own autobiographical significance, for the pilgrims’ progress traces, in reverse, the road that Buñuel himself took as a young man, eager to stake his claim in the mecca of European cinema.
Perhaps most personal of all, however, is the ambivalence to which The Milky Way bears witness—on the part of Catholicism, of the film’s characters, and, one senses, of its writer-director—between two potent, warring forces: the desire for understanding and the yearning for mystery. The church’s ultimate defense of even its most implausible tenets is that faith is not something to be explained, only believed—to which science, skepticism, heresy have responded by attempting to demystify, pierce the veil, like children questioning some arbitrary parental stricture until the exasperated parent sends them to their room (or the rack). Buñuel, both a lifelong admirer of Jean-Henri Fabre’s entomological treatises and a passionate lover of mystery in all its forms, was keenly aware of the conundrum: How does one defend faith without countenancing oppression? How can one dissect the incomprehensible without sacrificing mystery? And must one be forced to choose between the two? (This ambivalence apparently extended to the film’s reception as well: the more conservative newspapers tried to have it banned, while Buñuel’s friend Julio Cortázar accused the director of having financed it with Vatican money. The Vatican itself, to Buñuel’s dismay, received the film fairly warmly.)
“I’m an atheist, thank God,” Buñuel used to joke. He once remarked that he had stopped believing in a higher power in his adolescence but that certain beliefs and rituals of Christianity still left him profoundly moved. It is noteworthy that, the pomposity of some of its protagonists notwithstanding, The Milky Way never attacks or ridicules the orthodox dogmas, but rather questions and challenges them with what we might call respectful impertinence, reserving its true condemnations for the
human tendency to suppress opposing viewpoints. Appropriately, no doubt, it is a priest who voices what might be the film’s most programmatic statement: “A religion without mystery is no religion at all.” The fact that this priest then turns out to be an escaped mental patient only serves as a further caution against setting one’s feet too resolutely down a single path.
Mark Polizzotti is the author of eight books, including Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton and a British Film Institute monograph on Luis Buñuel's Los olvidados. He is director of publications and intellectual property at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.