The Milky Way

The Milky Way (1969)
Criterion Collection
Cast: Laurent Terzieff, Paul Frankeur, Bernard Verley
Extras: Interviews, Documentary, Trailer

Luis Buñuel is one of the undisputed artists of the cinema. The Spanish-born director made his name as a darling of the surrealist movement and an enemy of conservative politics as early as the 1920s, effectively getting himself banished from Spain for several decades. Utilizing satire, social critique, abstract narratives, and outright blasphemy, Buñuel stirred up plenty of controversy in his native country as well as in Mexico and France, where he spent many years. He did not reach the pinnacle of his success until his 60s and 70s when, in France, he was given greater control over his movies and was allowed to fully indulge his surrealistic tendencies and his explore his favorite targets—the European bourgeoisie and the Catholic Church. It is the latter that Buñuel chose as his subject for 1969's "The Milky Way."

The movie, which is essentially plotless, follows a pair of vagrants on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain (Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff). The city, which is said to contain the remains of St. James the apostle, has drawn flocks of religious pilgrims for centuries. What unfolds for our heroes is a journey that takes them on several wild detours before they reach their destination. As they travel on foot down the contemporary (read 1968) Spanish highway, the pilgrims are inexplicably drawn into various encounters with figures from different points in Catholic Church history, all of whom are engaged in some heretical debate or another. Fourth-century sects, dueling Jesuits and Jansenists, crucified nuns, and even the Marquis de Sade pop up along the way, expressing conflicting views on Church doctrine while the confused yet unflinching pilgrims look on.

Sprinkled throughout the film are flashbacks to events in the life of Jesus Christ (played humorously and very humanly by Bernard Verley). We see him as he spins parables, turns water into wine, gives sight to the blind…and considers a shave. Humor like this is featured generously, but what really draws us into "The Milky Way" is Buñuel's exploration of Church heresies and the general religious divide. A confirmed atheist, Buñuel spent much of his film career satirizing and sometimes viciously attacking the ideologies of Christianity (Catholicism in particular) and the rigid structures of organized religion. Films such as "Nazarin," "Simon of the Desert," and "Viridiana" present cynical and often absurdist takes on the futility and, perhaps, even the pointlessness of imitating Jesus. In "The Milky Way," the focus is not so much on the ways in which people try to follow Jesus, but in the ways they have defied the Church.

One of Buñuel's most brilliant choices in this film is his decision to use actual Scripture passages and episodes from history. Almost all of the arguments and quotations cited actually come from the Bible and Church history. Taken out of context, however, they lose their meaning and often seem ridiculous. Only those most comprehensively educated in Church history (and the majority of Catholics, myself included, are not) would understand all of the references made throughout the film. This, however, is exactly what Buñuel seems to be counting on. By being unfamiliar with these references, we are inclined to see them just as Buñuel does—as meaningless and absurd.

At the same time, however, there are moments of rather delicate beauty that come in sharp contrast to the absurdity that permeates the film. For instance, late in the film, a heretic places a rosary on a tree branch and shoots at it. Later, the Virgin Mary (Edith Scob) appears to him and lovingly returns the rosary to him. There is a solemnity and sincerity here that seems contradictory to many of Buñuel's more overt attacks. What this suggests is that he may not, after all, be interested so much in simply criticizing the Church, but rather in opening up an ongoing discussion about the ways in which people have historically used religion as a way of justifying their own selfish and dangerous agendas. The film takes on the structure of such a discussion, as every scene features at least two characters debating their beliefs: the two pilgrims, a priest and a police officer, a maitre d' and his servers, the Marquis de Sade and his tortured victim. This results in perhaps one of Buñuel's most ambiguous features. Indeed, upon its initial release, some condemned it as Catholic propaganda while others saw it as an insult to the Church. Though not unanimously considered one of the director's greatest works, "The Milky Way" may be one of his most poignant explorations of true spirituality, revealing him not as an unflagging cynic but as a skeptic in search of truth.

Making its Region 1 debut from the Criterion Collection, "The Milky Way" is delivered in an anamorphic widescreen presentation preserving its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The print, digitally mastered in high definition from a 35mm interpositive, looks very good. There is a brownish hue throughout, producing warm and nicely saturated colors and skin tones. Black levels do appear a bit brownish as well, but this is not a distraction. Some grain is occasionally visible, but it is kept to a minimum and is negligible. The picture is sharp, with no signs of compression artifacts, bringing out lots of detail and complementing the surrealistic atmosphere.

Audio is presented in a Dolby Digital monaural track. With little in the way of music or thunderous sound effects, the film is dialogue-driven, and the original French dialogue sounds appropriately natural and clear throughout. I detected no background hiss or pops, and the soundtrack was impressive overall, considering its age. Optional English subtitles are provided as well.

As is fitting for a movie of this complexity, there are some excellent supplementary features that help put it in perspective. First is a new 28-minute interview with film historian Ian Christie. Christie discusses the film in its historical context of the late 1960s, helps to clarify some of the religious sources and references made in the film, and offers up his take on the surrealism. His comments are enlightening and very welcome. In fact, he almost left me yearning for an audio commentary track.

Up next is "Luis Buñuel: Atheist Thanks to God," a 32-minute documentary on the film featuring interviews with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, actors Laurent Terzieff and Bernard Verley, Father Jean-Robert Armogathe, and Buñuel's friend Jean Collet (the menu erroneously lists actor Claude Cerval as an interviewee, but he is not featured). The guests reveal some valuable information about the production of the movie, its release, and about Buñuel himself. Father Armogathe gives an interesting take on the film from a Catholic perspective. Collet offers the most personal recollections, including his final surprising insight into Buñuel's interest in theological study. This feature is in French with removable English subtitles.

After this, we get a brief interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. Speaking English here, he repeats some of the same information from the documentary but provides one particularly interesting story about a group of gypsies who regularly viewed the film during its initial release in Denmark, though they could not speak French or read Danish subtitles. This feature lasts six minutes. A trailer follows. All of these bonus features are presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Criterion has also included a beautiful insert booklet with this disc. It features two essays, "The Heretic's Progress" by Carlos Fuentes and "Easty Striders" by Mark Polizzotti, and an interview with Buñuel on the film. These add greater wealth to the information revealed in the disc's bonus features.

According to the Book of Matthew, Jesus professed to have brought not peace but division. The history of heresy in the Catholic Church as Buñuel depicted in "The Milky Way" demonstrates how much division clearly resulted. The film, on the other hand, seems to encourage a uniting of view points in a continuous search for the truth. It is religious satire at its best, commenting on the flaws of organized religions while still acknowledging the virtues of the mysteries behind them. One need not have any significant education in religious studies, or any religious conviction at all, to find something of interest in "The Milky Way." As with most of Buñuel's films, it is not for all tastes, and unless you pick up on the playfulness early on, the surrealism may wear on your patience. But for fans of absurdist or abstract filmmaking, the film can be a rewarding and even hilarious experience.