The Milky Way(’68) is both one of Luis Buñuel’s most specific and most obscure films. Never having achieved the popularity of such other late-period works as the Spanish director’s Belle de Jour (’67) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (’72), The Milky Way is a film about Christian heresies through the centuries, told in a manner that’s more referential than instructive. It names the now-forgotten heretics, evokes the old competing philosophies and has its characters quote copiously from old doctrinal disputes. It assumes that the viewer will have an intimate knowledge of all this stuff, making the film pretty tough sledding in parts.
But it’s also a Buñuel, which in itself means the film has enough deadpan absurdist humor to carry the audience through even elusive theological discussions. Religion was an ongoing preoccupation of the great surrealist director, and his approach ranged from grandly gothic to lightly spoofing.
As in most of his later films, a series of anecdotes stand in for an actual plot. Two tramps are walking from somewhere in the south of France to a shrine in Spain where the remains of St. James are allegedly kept. Though they engage in some lightweight religious banter, the purpose of the pilgrimage is practical — it’s tourist season at the shrine and begging should be fruitful.
Time is extremely mutable in this particular Buñuelian fantasy, allowing its characters to wander from contemporary to ancient settings and points in-between. That, combined with flashbacks, gives the film a distinct dreamlike feeling. But despite its seemingly random structure, the film was carefully organized, with input from Buñuel’s frequent co-writer, Jean-Claude Carriere.
The Milky Way touches on the six basic mysteries of Catholicism: the double nature of Christ; the seeming conundrum of the Holy Trinity; the paradox of the Virgin Mary; the substance of the Eucharist; achieving grace; and the origin of evil.
The film approaches each issue of faith through the heresies they inspire. Since the heresies occurred during the Catholic Church’s period of greatest power they were often the impetus for much bloodshed, something that obviously appeals to Buñuel’s and Carriere’s dark sense of humor.
Still, much of the film seems like a series of low-keyed japes rather than corrosive attacks. And so we have the ludicrous spectacle of a Jansenist and a Jesuit dueling with swords while they discuss the nature of grace, the maitre d’ of a fancy restaurant going over fine points of doctrine with his staff who seem to take it all in stride, and a group of young children chanting condemnation of various arcane heresies at an otherwise sunny Sunday school-type retreat.
The two priests in the film are depicted as self-satisfied pedagogues, and one actually turns out to be an escapee from a lunatic asylum. The devil first appears as an enigmatic prophet wearing a cape and then later as a young hippie depressed about his fate. Jesus appears as a well-meaning young proselytizer, a little stern but unable to resist a good miracle.
One expects Buñuel to cast a jaundiced eye on religion, the church and the clergy but the tone here is more equivocal than in most of the director’s satires.
When one character in the film says, “My hatred of science and my horror of technology will finally bring me round to this absurd belief in God,” he may well be expressing the director’s sentiments.
On initial release, the film was well received by the Catholic establishment, much to the filmmaker’s dismay. Buñuel also caught some grief from his fellow artistic progressives, who felt he was getting soft in his old age. Writer Julio Cortazar (Blow-Up, Hopscotch) went so far as to suggest that Vatican funding was behind the film.
It’s more likely that Buñuel had become an expansive-enough crank by the late 1960s to encompass a disdain for the hubris of modern materialism along with his longstanding distaste for religious orthodoxy.
And so it seems like a film made by a nonbeliever who might possibly tip over into acquiescence. But though the priest who attended to Buñuel on his deathbed said, “He knows more about the Church and its doctrines than I do,” Buñuel died in 1983, according to reports, with skepticism intact.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Oct. 6, 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].