Luis Buñuel’s wry Examination of Catholicism is a Cinematic Road Less Travelled.
DIRECTED BY LUIS BUÑUEL/FRENCH/1969
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JULY 23, 2019/KINO LORBER
The road between Paris and the whole of Spain is a narrow one indeed, littered and adorned with far more religious stops than the typical gas stations of the cross. Things get dicey, things get strange, things get slightly sexy, things get weird. (Crucified nuns, anyone?). But mostly there’s an orchestrated mundanity about it all. So goes The Milky Way, Luis Buñuel’s 1969 outward examination of the disparagements, dichotomies and devotions of the faithful, the faithless and those in-between on the road to Zion. Or maybe it’s just to Galicia.
Meet Pierre and Jean (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff), a pair of baseless drifters on said road. Not unlike Kurosawa’s pair of untethered wanderers in The Hidden Fortress, these contemporary travelers find themselves down a number of strange paths, many of which, in their unique case, reach back into various points of church history, replete with figures of no less importance than Jesus Christ (Bernard Verley), his mother Mary (Édith Scob), and the Devil himself (Pierre Clémenti). In such, The Milky Way (La Voie lactée) emerges, perhaps surprisingly, as more of an even-keeled probe into such things rather than the kind of scathing skewering Buñuel performed in his previous films L’Age D’Or (1929), Viridiana (1961), or Simon of the Desert (1965)- all personal visions which, to varying degrees, crossed into blasphemy.
This being Buñuel, it’s not the religious conversation itself that’s most noteable so much as the tone and nature of the conversation that the film is having with itself. Considering the filmmaker and noted surrealist’s own impatience with fanaticism, a believer encountering The Milky Way for the first time wouldn’t be off-base to do so with one’s guard up. (Likewise, a committed unbeliever might be bored with the thought of the examinations). This is where the film deviates within Buñuel’s filmography. There is a most interesting give-and-take here, so much so that The Milky Way has been both denounced as sacrilege and called out as propaganda for the Catholic Church.
The included booklet essay by film critic Adam Nayman is a particularly enlightening bonus, observing, among many other things, the way that Buñuel and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière (who is interviewed in a separate featurette) utilize the ideologically leveled playing field of importance that is a general tenet of surrealism. (“The Surrealist ethos of tamping down conventional dramatic investment by intentionally rendering pretty much every single person or event equivalently meaningful [or meaningless] is evident throughout.”)
In that, then, The Milky Way almost miraculously finds its way full circle, looping back to a place of academic precision and inerrancy of interpretation. Just as kings, intellectuals, and authoritarians have seen fit to challenge the validity of holy scripture by interpreting it with severe exactitude, so too, seemingly, goes Buñuel. The film ends with the following onscreen text:
Everything in this film concerning the Catholic religion and the heresies it has provoked, especially from the dogmatic point of view, is rigorously exact. The texts and citations are taken either direct from Scripture, or modern and ancient works on theology and ecclesiastical history.
Playing out almost anthology style with nothing in the way of plot, The Milky Way takes on no shortage of key theological issues, including but not limited to transubstantiation and predestination. It does so wryly, per Buñuel’s established nature. But all the while, the search is real. Interesting that this film follows Viridiana and Simon of the Desert. The atheist Buñuel went on to consider it the first of a trilogy of unconventional films concerned with the search for truth. It is followed by 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty. None are particularly attractive or visually expansive films, though there is an expert consistency of tone between them. Each is also a cinema classic in its own right.
In snagging the rights for this film away from Criterion (as part of a broader salvage of Studiocanal titles which that label lost some time ago), Kino Lorber has the honor of landing The Milky Way on domestic Blu-ray. The transfer and French-to-English subtitles are very good, and the substantial helping of extra features sweetens the deal. Besides the already-mentioned booklet essay and interview with Jean-Claude Carrier, the disc offers and audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton, trailers, and a critical analysis by Professor Peter W. Evans. While a return to Criterion Collection would’ve been preferred, this release will more than accommodate.
As stated in the film, “Faith doesn’t come to us through reason but through the heart”. Interestingly and perhaps more on point than Buñuel would’ve admitted (or did he?), the same could also be said of surrealism. The Milky Way’s attempt to pit the two together- not in reconciliation but also not in direct combat- is a strangely edifying trip down a road not often taken by cinema, and certainly not by the church. This is Buñuel’s journey, in all its confounding stops and engaging detours.
The images and promotional material used in the review are present only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality or content of the Blu-ray.