Directed by Luis Buñuel
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 101 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
Release Date: August 21, 2007
Review Date: August 13, 2007
Luis Buñuel spent a cinematic lifetime observing the world around him and chafing at its structures and proprieties. In his film The Milky Way, he takes a particularly lively stab at the complexities and enigmas of Catholic dogma which he finds especially restricting in its liturgy and absurd in its fundamental principles. The movie is Buñuel’s examination of heresy in many of its guises down through the ages. The problem with the film for the casual viewer, however, is that unless one is well schooled in the various religious and secular movements which have been warring for centuries over these same religious principles, the multiple allusions the writer-director uses in his film will go right over one’s head. The satire is totally lost in the director’s slavish need to denote heresies in their many and varied forms to an audience that most likely isn‘t as well versed in them as its co-writer-director is..
The satire takes the form of a picaresque as two French hobos (Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff) make a trek from Paris to Santiago, Spain, to the sacred shrine of St. James. (We find out later they’re only going there because the expected crowds will make their panhandling easier. They have no noble religious purpose for their pilgrimage.) During the course of their travels, they encounter a succession of out-of-the-ordinary folks, and as this is a Buñuel film, they also cross countries and centuries encountering Jesus and his disciples, the Virgin Mary, some surly priests during the Inquisition, two 18th century French Jesuit and Jansenist priests dueling over their sects’ beliefs, and even protestors with guns in then-modern day France out to assassinate the Pope. Sometimes the two tramps interact with these historical figures. At other times, other people they meet make the transitions to another place and time and do the interacting. It’s all free flowing surrealistic expression a la Buñuel, but one has to be willing to expect anything and simply roll with the punches.
We get the point very early on that there is a great deal of hypocrisy connected with organized religion. A man who gives the two tramps a ride immediately tosses them out of the car when one utters a sigh that contains the name of the Lord (hardly a Christian act of charity).We see a group of pious-looking priests and nuns who then began to couple up (or sometimes get in multiple groups) and begin erotic encounters. We see the sect whose faith is so strong that they crucify themselves so better to feel the pain Christ felt while onlookers jeer at their fanaticism. A priest secretly brandishing a knife with which to kill implores a young man to open his hotel room door so they can discuss theology face-to-face. The young man wisely refuses.
This is a comedy? Yes, in Buñuel’s world of conflicting heretical expression, it is. Admittedly, there are some obviously funny moments. Jesus begins to shave his beard, but he’s stopped by his mother who convinces him he looks better with it. A priest who’s seriously listening to a believer asking him theological questions suddenly flings a cup of coffee in his face. Some of the pomp of Catholic rituals (which the director both loathed and yet found fascinating) is punctured with slapstick time and again. Even when Jesus heals two blind men near the film’s climax, we’re unsure if it “took” since the men hesitate and use their canes to continue to feel the ground.
All of the film’s players do their jobs competently, but it’s curious that they don’t linger in the memory at all once the film concludes. No one makes enough of an emotional connection through his work to be memorable, and since the film‘s structure is such a patchwork, it‘s difficult to glom onto any one person for any length of time because characters and settings are constantly changing.
Examining and questioning religious heresies that have existed for centuries is a noble enough theme for a film. The Milky Way simply requires too much fore-knowledge of religious dogma for its jokes to work consistently.
The film’s 1.66:1 aspect ratio is presented here in a very fine anamorphic transfer. The film is quite sharp for the most part though there are occasional scenes which are soft and one shot with intense grain (apparently a cropped blow-up of a shot to achieve a close-up). Color is accurate with good flesh tones, but the film seems a bit underlit throughout and so the transfer can seem somewhat dull. I did not notice any video artifacts in this presentation. The white subtitles are easy to read though they can occasionally fly by and necessitate back scanning to read what was missed. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack gets the job done but is completely lackluster. Though hiss, pops, and flutter are not present, the low end of the sound spectrum is weakly presented.
A film this dense could certainly have used a running commentary, but none is present. Instead, we are offered an enlightening and most welcome 30-minute video essay by film scholar Ian Christie explaining the film’s theme and illuminating many of the movie’s more baffling and archaic allusions. As a champion of the film, he tends to overlook its real weaknesses, but he is honest enough to note that among Buñuel’s religious parody triptych (the other two being The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty), The Milky Way is the least successful. His comments run 28 minutes and are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière offers a 6-minute appreciation of The Milky Way. He explains (in English) his preparation for writing the script with Buñuel and the other happy associations they had writing scripts together. This, too, is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
“Luis Buñuel: Atheist Thanks to God” is a 31-minute documentary featuring actors and behind-the-scenes personnel commenting on the director and his work on this film in particular along with his fascination with Catholic dogma despite his own doubts. Presented in French with English subtitles and in anamorphic widescreen, it’s another excellent guide for a beginning appreciation of Buñuel’s cinematic output.
The film’s 3-minute theatrical trailer teases about the heresies and contradictions that are dealt with in the film. It’s also subtitled and in anamorphic widescreen.
The set’s 37-page booklet contains excellent color shots from the movie, two essays containing thoughts on the film by novelist Carlos Fuentes and nonfiction writer Mark Polizzotti, and interview excerpts with Buñuel himself by a variety of critics from 1975-1977.
The Milky Way is a challenging work from one of the world’s most challenging directors. If the subject of religious satire is of interest to you (I found Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Kevin Smith’s Dogma much more accessible), you might find the film something you might like to rent. It does have its worthwhile moments.