The 20th century's most disturbing film about faith became available on digital
video disc (DVD) last Wednesday when the Criterion Collection released Luis
Bunuel's 1969 masterpiece The Milky Way.  It does not fit the usual
criteria of devotional cinema. The sort of viewer who felt uplifted by Mel
Gibson's The Passion of the Christ might not last through 10 minutes of
it. Nonetheless, Bunuel's half-comic romp through the heresies of Church
history has a quality that makes every other film on Christian themes seem
dispirited by comparison. Uniquely, the
great Spanish director re-creates onscreen the strangeness and wonder of the
biblical world, that is, a world in which the Divine is always manifest.
Busloads of Baptists did not descend on theaters when Bunuel's film was
released nearly four decades ago, and it is unlikely that its release on an
electronic medium will do much to increase the film's limited audience. That is
a pity, for it offers a sort of litmus test for faith: if you don't laugh at
the jokes, you probably don't believe a word of what you profess.
Bunuel (1900-83) is best known to mass audiences for bashing the bourgeoisie,
as in Belle de jour, his 1967 portrait of an upper-class housewife
turned whore, or the drug-running toffs of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
(1972), which won him his only Oscar. Early in his career he produced the
surrealistic short subject The Andalusian Dog in partnership with
painter Salvador Dali, a shocker in 1929 but a bore today. A surrealist and
fellow-traveler of the Spanish Communist Party who abandoned the Catholic
Church as an adolescent, Bunuel might seem the director least likely to succeed
at religious cinema.
But when The Milky Way appeared in 1969, the Vatican embraced it (the
Jesuits more than the Dominicans, Bunuel observed with a connoisseur's
accuracy) while the director's left-wing friends recoiled in horror. Argentine
novelist Julio Cortazar left a private screening in high dudgeon, accusing
Bunuel (falsely) of having obtained secret financing from the Church.
Doubt is the handmaiden of faith, for without doubt no faith is required. An
impassioned doubter might not make the best priest or parson, but it takes an
agony of doubt to produce a great narrative work of art on a religious subject.
That is why outsiders often produce the most profoundly religious art - Faust
by the "great heathen" Johann Wolfgang von Goethe comes to mind.
On the surface, The Milky Way is surreal. Two French hobos panhandle and
hitchhike their way through the venerable pilgrimage route to the Spanish
shrine of Santiago of Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the tomb of the
apostle James was said to lie. The clochards encounter divine beings,
including the persons of the Holy Trinity as well as the Angel of Death, and
wander in and out of episodes of Church history. Episodes from the life of
Christ are interspersed, including one that is not documented by the Bible (the
Virgin persuades Jesus not to shave his beard).
Throughout, Bunuel emphasizes the difficulties, if not the absurdities, of
Scripture and doctrine. A cloaked personage (who turns out to be the First
Person of the Trinity) encounters the protagonists as they attempt to hitch a
ride outside Paris, and quotes the injunction of the prophet Hosea to bear
children with a prostitute, and to call their names "You Are Not My People" and
"There Is No More Mercy". At the conclusion of the film, the hobos at last
reach Santiago, where a prostitute informs them that the pilgrims have ceased
to come and the city is empty, whereupon they go off with her to produce these
children. Hosea's curse upon errant Israel tells us a great deal about Bunuel's
opinion of us.
Various characters attempt to explain transubstantiation and virgin birth (God
is in the host just as a rabbit is in a rabbit pate, offers an
innkeeper), under improbable and often silly circumstances. Meanwhile, divine
beings pass in and out of the story. The clochards meet a young boy who
bears the stigmata of Christ, and make a desultory effort to help him. The boy
holds out his hand and a limousine stops to pick them up; the clochards unthinkingly
blaspheme, and the chauffeur kicks them back out. A bit later, one of the bums
expresses the hope that a car that refused to stop for them will crash; a
moment later it does so, and in the back seat they find the Angel of Death, who
turns on the car radio as it broadcasts a description of hell by St John of the
The hobos try to panhandle at an elegant restaurant at which the headwaiter and
his staff debate the nature of the Eucharist; when the headwaiter dismisses
atheists as a lot of madmen, the camera takes us to a discourse by an elegant
gentleman who denounces the absurdities of religion. This enlightened opponent
of faith turns out to be the Marquis de Sade, who is torturing a young girl who
protests the existence of God. So much for rational objections to faith, Bunuel
tells us; absence of faith is not rationality but the hatred of God that stems
from perverse impulses.
So the film slips in and out of time through Church history. Two Spanish
heretics of the 16th century denounce the doctrine of the