Arguably, The Milky Way (La Voie Lactée) is one of the most polemical, controversial, cynical, daring, surrealist, profane, ironic, subversive, comical, symbolic, and thought provoking films ever made. Beautifully directed by the legendary Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), The Milky Way is a true masterpiece of filmmaking. Furthermore, this film is so audacious and unconventional with regard to its subject matter and narrative structure, that it defies evaluation, interpretation, and categorization.
Within the context of the oeuvre of Luis Buñuel, The Milky Way clearly marked the return of the director to his surrealist origins. A deeply politically and socially conscious film, The Milky Way paved the way for the later masterworks of Buñuel. As a matter of fact, several scholars consider this film, along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974), to be a thematically and structurally consistent trilogy. Indeed, these three films share an incisive criticism of authoritarian institutions and an unconventional narrative structure that does not respect any type of temporal or spatial coherence. Unfortunately, most probably because of its religious themes, The Milky Way has never achieved the level of popularity reached by Buñuel’s other films.
The genesis of The Milky Way can be traced back to Buñuel’s young adulthood, when he was living in France and became deeply involved in the surrealist cultural movement. For Buñuel and his peers, however, surrealism not only was an aesthetic categorization as the term is often understood today, but it was also a sophisticated political and cultural ideology. That is, the non-sequitur and unexpected juxtapositions that characterize surrealist art can also be interpreted as an opposition to the moral, religious, and social codes arbitrarily imposed by oppressive and decadent authoritarian institutions.
Equally important is the fact that Buñuel was born in a province of Aragon, Spain, and was educated in a very strict Jesuit school. Perhaps because of his traditional upbringing, Buñuel was always an open critic of organized religion in general and of the Roman Catholic Church in particular. As a consequence, most of the films he made before The Milky Way tended to mock, one way or the other, these two institutions. By the late ‘60s, following the success of his acclaimed Belle de Jour (1967), Buñuel was deeply interested in making a film about religion and its heretics.
Closely working with his long time collaborator and friend, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Buñuel came up with the story of two pilgrims, Pierre (Paul Frenkeur) and Jean (Laurent Terzieff), who leave Paris in an attempt to reach Spain’s holy city of Santiago de Compostela. As explained in the foreword of the movie, such a pilgrimage is a Catholic tradition that dates back to medieval times. However, instead of fervent religious practitioners, Pierre and Jean are two irredeemable beggars who hope to take advantage of the charitable people that they find on their way.
Pierre (Paul Frenkeur) and Jean (Laurent Terzieff) argue on the road to Santiago de Compostela
The narrative structure of The Milky Way is rather unique in its lack of temporal and spatial coherence. Indeed, on their pilgrimage, Jean and Pierre meet several characters who belong to different time periods and geographical locations. For instance, while the movie starts in France during the ‘60s, the two pilgrims meet the members of an obscure medieval sect, they spend a night at an early ‘20s inn, they witness a duel between two theologians from the Renaissance, and even Jesus Christ himself crosses paths with them. Also, characters appear and disappear from a closed room without any internal logical structure. This distinctive narrative technique was appropriately referred to, by Buñuel, as “discontinuous continuity”.
In addition, the way the story develops in The Milky Way is clearly inspired by The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), the intriguing Polish film directed by Wojciech Hoj based on the book of the same name by Jan Potocki. This movie, which was much admired by Buñuel, consists of a series of stories immersed within each other. As the story progresses, the viewer traverses many layers of narratives within the narrative itself. Such is the case with The Milky Way, as Jean and Pierre meet people that recount adventures of other persons, who tell further stories about other characters, and so on.
However, all the narrative segments that make up The Milky Way share a common theme: religious heresy. The film presents several situations where a number of devoted characters are discussing and questioning the fundamental bases of several religious dogmas. Allegedly, Buñuel and Carrière studied dozens of books on heretics, philosophy, theology and the history of Catholicism before the production of this film. Borrowing from the extensive literature on the subject, the arguments featured in The Milky Way are conceptually sophisticated and use a rather complex language.
The characters in The Milky Way indeed tackle difficult theological questions, mostly those concerning the six elemental dogmas or “mysteries” of Catholicism: the Eucharist, the God-human duality of Jesus Christ, the three-in-one nature of the Holy Trinity, the source of evil, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, and the origin of the free will. However, all the arguments found in The Milky Way are jam-packed with artificial terms such as transubstantiation, the alleged process in which bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist. This of course has no possible relationship to any known physical process found in nature.
Also, in spite of their overwhelming use of philosophic and theological language, the characters appear to be equally confused about these issues as anybody else. In this regard, a very amusing scene in The Milky Way features a priest who is trying to explain the transubstantiation process in the Eucharist to a police captain. According to the priest, the presence of Christ in the host is completely different than the presence of the rabbit in the Pâté. As he goes along with an intricate theological argument, somehow he convinces himself of the opposite view. So he finally concludes that Christ is in the host in a very similar way as the rabbit is in the Pâté. When the captain observes that the priest has just contradicted himself, the priest throws his cup of tea at the captain’s face. A sort of punch line emerges soon after when it is revealed that the priest is an escaped inmate from a nearby psychiatric hospital.
Therefore, Buñuel cleverly reveals in The Milky Way that the metaphysical, philosophical, and theological argumentation of religious dogma is completely absurd, pointless, and meaningless. After all, these arguments do not follow a solid rational structure and they are impossible to corroborate by physical means. For Buñuel, religion is logically inconsistent and any attempt to explain the mysteries of Catholicism will ultimately lead to wacky and contradicting conclusions.
While many of the arguments presented in The Milky Way sound completely absurd, and the ensuing situations look amusing, Buñuel reminds us that at some point in history people were actually killed and tortured for disagreeing with the established religious dogma. In a scene that takes place during the Spanish Inquisition, a humble monk challenges the Grand Inquisitor by asking if their brutal methods are against God’s will. After a short rebuttal using sophisticated and impenetrable theological language, the Inquisitor merely suggests that the monk will be considered a heretic if he continues questioning their doctrine.
Even though many scholars and critics have referred to The Milky Way as an atheist film, it actually appears to subscribe to agnosticism. That is, Buñuel never expressively suggests the absence of God, but he repeatedly questions the nature of spiritual faith and he severely condemns the futile attempts to rationalize the intrinsically illogical religious creed. For Buñuel, an all powerful and know-it-all God could not possibly be worried about our personal behavior, our suffering, our desires, and our mistakes. Judging the man by his films, Buñuel had an obsessive interest in God and probably he knew more about religion than those who attend church every Sunday. However, Buñuel was completely against organized religion and often denounced the pain and agony that these dogmatic institutions have brought upon the world.
In this regard, the ending of The Milky Way is very telling. When two blind men arrive to Santiago de Compostela, Jesus Christ (Bernard Verley) apparently cures them and gives them back their vision (this is debatable, as in spite of their gratitude, they still appear to be blind). At this point, Jesus makes the point that he does not want his alleged miracles to be known across the world. His rationale is that “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother. Verily I say unto you, a man’s foe shall be those of his own household.” For Buñuel, organized religions have only been able to separate mankind through irreconcilable hate and violence.
Interestingly enough, when Buñuel first expressed interest in making The Milky Way, most of his confidants told him that religion was an outdated topic and that nobody would care to watch such a film. After all, 1968 was a year full of social and political turmoil all over the world, and religious issues were not a big concern at that time. Thus, it is perhaps ironic that acclaimed director Milos Forman stated that The Milky Way was an extremely political film. And he was obviously right: the sharp criticism toward organized religion and Catholic doctrine that is found in The Milky Way remains valid for any other type of political dogma such as Marxism, Stalinism, Leninism, McCarthyism, or Nazism.
Long unavailable on any video format in the US, The Milky Way finally arrives on a lavish DVD edition courtesy of the Criterion Collection. As with most titles released by Criterion, the picture and audio quality are sublime, and the disc is packed with insightful extra features. The complexity and sophistication of The Milky Way is put in evidence by the fact that most of the bonus content found on this DVD is somehow geared to help the viewer decode the many social and political meanings of Buñuel’s film.
This DVD presentation includes an introduction by screenwriter Carrière, where he recounts his collaboration with Buñuel and the genesis of The Milky Way. A rather exhaustive discussion of the themes and allegories found in The Milky Way are presented in an insightful interview with British film critic Ian Christian and in the discerning documentary Luis Buñuel: Atheist Thanks to God, which features Carrière and many other friends and collaborators of Buñuel. Also, a 36 page booklet reprints an enlightening interview with Buñuel, as well as essays by renowned Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes and scholar Mark Polizzotti.
However, in spite of all the enlightening interpretations and insightful information found on the extra features of this magnificent DVD, and even after repeated viewings, Buñuel’s The Milky Way remains ambiguous and enigmatic. In this film, Buñuel poses important questions about religious beliefs and organized religion. Nonetheless, he never gives an answer to these issues. Buñuel, as any other great artist, leaves up to the spectator to decode the meaning of his work. In our post 9/11 world, haunted by fundamentalist sects, religious extremists, and terrorist cults, The Milky Way’s incisive criticism of dogmatic institutions is more relevant than ever.