Country: France-West Germany-Italy
Director: Luis Buñuel
The General, It Happened One Night, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Sullivan's Travels, Detour, Easy Rider, Into the Wild—the road movie is one of the most enduring and versatile of film genres. Its literary roots stretch as far back as Homer's Odyssey and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. But surely one of the oddest, most unique, and most startling of all road movies is the great Luis Buñuel's surrealistic-religious version of that venerable genre, The Milky Way, from 1969.
In the film two hitchhiking tramps, Pierre and Jean (Peter and John, names clearly chosen for their Christian connotations), undertake one of the medieval pilgrimage routes from France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the cathedral is said to contain the remains of St. James. As in most road movies, along the way they have colorful experiences and encounters with various people—but with some important differences that distinguish this from the typical road movie. For one thing, this is a Buñuel movie, so unpredictability and departure from strictly literal storytelling are to be expected. For another, because the individual episodes always involve religion in some way, they are linked thematically. And most curious of all, Pierre and Jean act sometimes as participants in the events of the film, sometimes more as observers who wander in and out of the episodes enacted around them, exactly the same as in dreams, where the dreamer's point of view can suddenly shift in just this way.
Each vignette in the movie serves as an anecdote of some kind about the Roman Catholic religion. Except for Pierre and Jean, everyone in the movie seems to be preoccupied with religion, endlessly pondering the polemics of Catholic dogma. But Pierre and Jean, who don't seem to be devout or even practicing Catholics, never discuss religion even though miracles constantly happen around them. Almost as soon as they set out they have an encounter with what appears to be Buñuel's bizarre personification of the trinity—an oracular man in a black cape accompanied by a dwarf and a white dove. Right after they comfort a child who bears the stigmata of Christ sitting alone by the side of the road, a chauffeured limousine pulls up and gives them a ride, almost, it seems, as a reward for their compassion. Later, when a passing Citroën speeds past them without stopping, Pierre mutters, "I hope he breaks his neck," and a moment later we hear screeching brakes and a crash. When they rush to the wrecked car, they find the angel of death sitting in the car waiting to show them that their prayer has been answered. Yet aside from causing understandable amazement, these miraculous incidents have little effect on them and never direct their thoughts or conversation towards any religious or spiritual topic.
As Pierre and Jean make their way to Santiago, scenes from their journey alternate with scenes from the past (including scenes of the Marquis de Sade and the Inquisition), their reveries about what they are experiencing, tangential scenes of the religious experiences of the people they encounter in which they play little or no part, and scenes from the life of Christ that offer some parallel to what is happening to them at the moment. Early in the film, for example, Pierre tells Jean that he wears a beard because his mother told him he looks better with it. This is immediately followed by a scene in which Christ prepares to shave his beard and the Virgin Mary tells him not to shave because he looks better with a beard. At the end of the film, just as the two vagabonds reach the outskirts of Santiago, they encounter a prostitute (Delphine Seyrig) who invites them into the woods for sex. The camera then pans away from the three, and we see Christ and his disciples walking through these same woods, where they encounter two blind men, whose sight Christ proceeds to restore in a weird parallel to the sexual encounter of our pilgrims.
Much of the film consists of people debating the theological enigmas of the Catholic church as though these were the most pressing of issues. Many of the most divisive historical controversies of Catholicism are included—free will versus predestination, the nature of the trinity, the nature of the Virgin Mary—quarrels which have spawned heresies, caused schisms, and resulted in excommunication, torture, and even death for those on the wrong side. Although the debates in the film generally end inconclusively, one—on the question of transubstantiation in the Eucharist, that is, how the body of Christ can be contained in the bread used in the communion service—is ingeniously resolved by an uneducated innkeeper. It's like this rabbit pâté I'm serving you, he tells his argumentative guests as Pierre and Jean observe from another table: the rabbit is in the pâté, yet it's still pâté. As in the other debates of this nature, the famously anticlerical Buñuel makes one of the most sacred doctrinal disputes of the Church seem utterly inane.
What I have described might sound rather like a narrative hodgepodge, with one episode following another haphazardly as the pilgrims proceed along their route, the progress of that journey about the only thing in the movie that could be called linear. But somehow it all manages to hold together, the film's coherence the result of its own crazy internal logic that fuses realism with mysticism, cogency with randomness. The images and the ideas don't fit together in any sort of conventionally logical way, but in the analogical way that dream images and events do. The film clearly shows Buñuel's thorough understanding of the psychological underpinnings of surrealism and absurdism and the exceptional skill with which he was able to translate those concepts into cinematic terms. I can't think any other filmmaker who would have been able to take such an unlikely mélange and make it work so well—poking fun at what is basically a serious subject in such a bracingly comical way and with such bemused detachment—as Buñuel does in The Milky Way.