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THE MILKY WAY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Laurent Terzieff, Paul Frankeur
Director:  Luis Bunuel
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  August 21, 2007

“Faith doesn’t come to us through reason, but through the heart.”

Film ***1/2

The Milky Way (La Voie Lactee) reminded me a lot of my Catholic school youth, when we kids often sat around the table at lunchtime asking the same questions mankind has been asking for two thousand years.  Why isn’t purgatory mentioned in scriptures?  How did the immaculate conception come about?  How is there one God in three persons in the form of the Blessed Trinity?  To our credit, not even the great scholar and theologian St. Augustine could answer that one.

For filmmaker Luis Bunuel, who was raised a Catholic but lived his adult life as an atheist, these are still questions to be pondered.  For him, maybe they come from a more cynical place than one of truly seeking knowledge.  But his film does represent one basic humanistic truth, which is how impossible it is to completely fathom the infinite with finite minds.

Based on his own fascination with the history of heresy within the Church, The Milky Way is a pilgrimage not only of space, but of time.  Two beggars named Jean (Terzieff) and Pierre (Frankeur) are making a trek from France to Spain on foot, as have many Europeans, to the resting place of the Apostle James.  But in typical Bunuel fashion, their journey not only takes them across the continent, but through history as well, and they end up witnesses to some of the most noted (and all true) heresies against the Catholic Church.

There is no Martin Luther here, but there are other figures, including Christ Himself, who is portrayed as a figure who loves to laugh, and even gets chided by his mother when he contemplates shaving off his beard.  But there are other figures, too…strange ones in a forest who declare Satan an equal to God, a priest who changes his mind mid-conversation about the nature of the Eucharist and is quickly taken away by some nice young men in white coats, a pair of scholars from opposing sects who turn their conflicting beliefs into an all out duel, and some clergy exhuming the body of another clergyman from consecrated ground because they discovered in his writings that he too was a heretic.

The film is not constant in space or time, but the philosophical nature of it keeps it coherent…discussing the film doesn’t involve characters or storyline as much as ideas and questions.  As such, what you take from the film may depend on what you bring with you.  Bunuel himself, despite his atheism, later claimed the film didn’t argue for or against any specific ideas.  Some have said if you’re a Christian, you’ll hate the movie.

Well, I’m a Christian, and a Catholic, and I felt no such contempt for the work.  Like I mentioned, the film actually asks questions that many of us still ask to this day, though it comes across as more of an actual struggle for faith to the characters in the picture than it might for the rest of us.

Consider two young heretics who boldly proclaim the doctrine of the Trinity is false.  They don’t believe in the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to show it, they hang a rosary on a tree and obliterate it with a shotgun blast.  But in the next segment, Mary herself appears to one of the men, and says not a word, but hands the young man her own rosary.  It changes his mind on a lot of things, and later at an inn he sits fascinated as a priest offers up a couple of stories of miracles associated with Mary, including one where she took the place of a runaway nun for several years, so that when the nun returned, no one at her convent had ever known she was gone.

The final segment might be the most eyebrow-raising, as we see Jesus healing two blind beggars, who then ask to be shown more and more.  As Jesus and his apostles depart, the beggars are seen following, still using their canes.  Is it meant to suggest the miracle is false?  Not in my eyes (no pun intended).  Rather, it seems to be a statement about how we can experience faith without having any knowledge or inclination as to how to apply it to our own lives.  But that’s the genius of Bunuel…as I said once before, what you take away from the movie may just depend on what you bring with you.

In perhaps a great cosmic irony, faith and heresy are almost codependent.  If one has strong religious beliefs, one must by the very nature of them believe they are the absolute true way to redemption, and those with other ideas are either merely mistaken or practicing chicanery.  One might view Martin Luther as a heretic, or one might view the Church herself as the author of error.  One might even say both were wrong.  It’s sad that faith, in some sense, lends itself to a certain amount of intolerance.

The Church, as demonstrated in the film, performed her share of dire deeds in order to keep the tenets of her faith pure.  But that never can, nor has it, completely worked.  Churches are made up of individuals, and as long as man has a sense of reason, free will and individualism, full and total agreement on the subject of dogma (or really, anything else for that matter) is a long way from possible.  I’m wont to find two Catholics today in my own circles that completely agree on every aspect of the faith. 

But good discussion without animosity can be a boon rather than a bane, which is why I assume the Almighty gave us our minds instead of sending us into the world pre-programmed to follow His dispositions.  It’s in that spirit that I found much to like about The Milky Way.  I looked on it not so much as a criticism of religion, but a treatise on the great mysteries of faith, hope and charity.  That’s certainly meat for thought…even for an atheist.

Video ***

This movie is the same age as me (look it up and do the math, if you’re curious), and it has held up quite well.  Criterion’s anamorphic transfer is solid, with good coloring and clarity throughout.  There is some noticeable grain in the darker segments and a few tell-tale aging artifacts here and there, but as usual, for a classic film, Criterion delivered the goods.

Audio **

The French mono soundtrack is workable…there’s not a lot of dynamic range, nor is it really called for, but for an older film, the audio is still notably clean and clear.

Features ***

The extras include interviews with noted Criterion commentator Ian Christie and one with co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere.  There is also a 30 minute documentary “Luis Bunuel: Atheist Thanks to God”, plus the original trailer.

Summary: 

The Milky Way offers more questions than answers, but such sometimes is the mystery of faith.  Luis Bunuel was a non-believer, but religion was always a subject of fascination for him, and as such, that fascination carries over to his audiences, regardless of their own faiths or lack thereof.

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