Claude Cerval, Alain Cuny, Paul Frankeur, François Maistre, Edith Scob, Laurent Terzieff, and Bernard Verley in La voie lactée (1969)

MILKY WAY, THE (Voie lactée, La)

(director/writer: Luis Bunuel; screenwriter: Jean-Claude Carriere; cinematographer: Christian Matras; editor: Louisette Hautecoeur; music: Luis Bunuel; cast: Paul Frankeur (Pierre), Laurent Terzieff (Jean), Alain Cuny (The Man with the cape), Edith Scob (The Virgin Mary), Bernard Verley (Jesus), Francois Maistre (The French Clergyman), Claude Cerval (The Sergeant), Julien Bertheau (Maitre d’), Michel Piccoli (The Marquis), Michel Etcheverry (The Spanish Inquisitor), Georges Marchal (The Jesuit), Jean Piat (The Jansenite), Denis Manuel (Rodolphe), Daniel Pilon (Francois), Pierre Clementi (The Devil), Marcel Peres (Spanish innkeeper), Julien Guiomar (The Spanish Clergyman), Delphine Seyrig (The Prostitute), Jean-Claude Carrière (Priscillian); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Serge Silberman; Criterion Collection; 1969-France-in French with English subtitles)
“Has some laughs mostly at the expense of Catholic dogma.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Atheist Spanish expatriate director Luis Bunuel (“Un Chien Andalou”/”Nazarin”/”Simon of the Desert”), who once said “Thank God I’m an atheist,” has some laughs mostly at the expense of Catholic dogma in this anti-clerical, anti-militant, anti-bourgeois, anti-hypocrite and anti-establishment satire. It takes shape as a religious parable–instead of a Pilgrim’s Progress it’s more like an Atheist’s Progress. It’s cowritten by the director and Jean-Claude Carriere; it’s the first of four of his anecdotal films of his last years that include: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire.

The film is greatly influenced by the free-love and freethinking mood set by the revolutionary actions of the French youth and the radicalized workers of the late sixties, which had its messy and strident moments that don’t go unnoticed by the filmmaker. Bunuel has stated the film is “neither for nor against anything at all,” as he assumed the pose of an observer vouchsafing his views of a disbelief in redemption as his modern-day narrator vagrant pilgrim protagonists run into an anticlerical history of heresy through the Christian ages. It’s the only Bunuel film made up entirely of Catholic dogma itself, and proudly points out during the closing credits that every quotation used is authentic. It expounds on the six ‘mysteries’ of Catholic dogma: 1-The nature of God (the three-in-one nature of the Holy Trinity). 2- Christ (regarding his dual nature as God and man). 3- The Virgin Mary (the credibility of the immaculate conception) 4-The Eucharist (wonders whether or not the host is literally Christ’s body or merely a metaphor). 5-Divine Grace (regarding the role of free will in a divine order). 6-Evil (questions if God is omnipotent, how could there be sin and temptation). Throughout the film there will be a running debate between the the literal orthodox view and its heretical counterpart.

Two clownish, amiable, and blandly roguish rather than pious vagrant Parisian pilgrims, Pierre (Paul Frankeur) and the younger and more skeptical Jean (Laurent Terzieff), experts in just going with the flow in a deadpan manner no matter what trouble befalls them, serve as the ‘everyman’ spokesmen for the film. They journey through France on their way to the Spanish shrine Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain (the cathedral holds the remains of the apostle Saint James-another name for the Milky Way is the Way of Saint James). They plan to make money begging for alms among the many affluent tourists and pilgrims gathering there. They walk along the highway, as they mostly fail to hitch rides. En route they meet various characters that include (a caped God-like figure hiding a dwarf in his cape, questionable priests, a crucified nun, blind men cured by the Lord, bully policemen, the sadistic Marquis de Sade, stigmatic children, a Spanish inquisitor, the Whore of Babylon, the Devil, the first Christian executed for heresy (the fourth-century ascetic Priscillian, the Spanish bishop played by the co-writer), Christ and the Virgin Mary) as they magically pass through time-warps, space-warps, mythologies and other narrative digressions.

The film’s unique narrative structure uses what the director calls “discontinuous continuity,” whereby sequences never come together as a whole as they constantly fracture into new developments. It’s a reversal of how Bunuel formerly told a story on film, but wasn’t perfected by him until his outstanding film The Phantom of Liberty.

One of the film’s memorable scenes has an uppity mama’s boy Jesus being talked out of shaving his signature beard by the Virgin Mary. Part of the film’s fun is discovering on your own all of Bunuel’s digs at the church as he tosses back at them their own words, his knack for coming up with surprises and unusual images down every bend in the road, the eye-opening display of human in-tolerances and a capacity for rigidity among the religious folks that threatens the fun-loving pilgrims with serious consequences if they make the wrong move, and all the meaty non sequiturs. Some critics found this film not up to his best works, but I must differ with them. It’s a personal Bunuel film that truly covers his lifetime concerns and plays to his fan base; it also plays out as a pilgrim’s journey that becomes a search for truth through fanaticism that is not only hilarious, edifying and well-crafted, but in a surreal way might even offer one an ungodly redemption from the ills of the modern world. However inaccessible some might find it, it nevertheless invites discussion for those with open minds.