To get a read on Luis Buñuel’s religious views, recall the image of two priests being dragged by ropes along with pumpkins, dead donkeys, tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and two grand pianos in Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel’s first film, co-directed by Salvador Dalí. From his followup L’age D’or in 1930 to the blasphemous, Palme d’or winning Viridiana in 1961, Buñuel solidified his place as one of the most transgressive and abstract of heretics, to the point of becoming persona non grata of the church in his native Spain, which he left during the heyday of Francisco Franco’s fascist regime to live and work in Mexico during its Golden Age of Cinema. There he created some of his greatest films, such as The Exterminating Angel and Los Olvidados, but towards the end of the 1960s he would return to making films in Europe and eventually Spain upon being accepted back into the Catholic Church.
The Milky Way, made in 1969, would be his last film with a primarily spiritual focus, although he’d continue to turn a critical eye towards religious institutions in ways supplementary to his subsequent works. With a cheeky Dadaist approach, the film playfully amalgamates the major heretical stances and figures of history while also never using its skepticism and satire to entirely dismiss the theological mindset. It rather uncharacteristically entertains and sometimes even celebrates religious feeling while skewering the semantic squabbles within (sometimes literally in the film) dueling sects. When Italy attempted to ban the film, it was the Catholic Church that came to its defense, and that should say something.
The Way of St. James runs from Paris to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and serves as the route of a pilgrimage to the body of St. James which is purportedly enshrined there. Campostela, or Campus Stellae, means field of stars, and so this route also has come to be known as The Milky Way, as the film explains. And like the stars of our Milky Way galaxy, the path to Santiago de Campostela is dotted with a spattering of heavenly clusters. Two pilgrims, Pierre and John, traipse across scenes from history, suddenly transported from the dreary roads of their pilgrimage to fervent theological discussions between state figures, delirious priests, a bizarre Sunday-school pageant, ascetic Priscillian orgies and Jansenist, self-crucifying nuns. Within this cornucopia of religious dissidents and iconoclasts, a bevy of age-old arguments commence over catholic teachings; the eucharist, transubstantiation, and nature of the trinity feature prominently in these discourses.
For all its esotericism, The Milky Way contains one of the most simple and accessible throughlines of anything by Buñuel, whose work often subsists off of inscrutability. Breaking from the more didactic elements of Christian theory, the film often digresses into scenes of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and their followers simply going about daily tasks or having mildly amusing experiences. Of this Buñuel has elaborated, saying he intended to show Jesus as any other man, living in a material form and susceptible to all the tedium, boredom, and randomness of the human experience, or “all those aspects completely alien to our traditional iconography”. This motif, in its plainness, serves as the most engaging and satisfying element of the film, and the most fun to interpret. Of course, per the filmmaker’s inclination, there need not be a single truth, although it’s tempting to try and find one. A scene at the end has Jesus healing a blind man who still cannot make sense of what he is seeing or walk unaided, which I can’t help but take to mean that “enlightenment” may very well make things even more confusing. | Nic Champion
This release contains a booklet with an essay by critic Andrew Nayman, an audio commentary by prolific film journalist Nick Pinkerton, and featurettes with Peter W. Evans and writer of The Milky Way, Jean-Claude Carrière.