In his autobiography The Last Sigh, Luis Buñuel suggests that “The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and The Phantom of Liberty form a kind of trilogy, or rather a triptych. All three have the same themes, the same grammar; and all evoke the search for truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it as soon as you’ve found it. All show the implacable nature of social rituals; and all argue for the importance of coincidence, of a personal morality, and of the essential mystery in all things, which must be maintained and respected.” Buñuel and his frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière wrote the first draft of the film in 1967 at the Parador Cazorla in the Andalusian mountains; a year and countless discourses later on “the Holy Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, and the mysteries of the Virgin Mary,” the script was completed. Though highly regarded in some circles, The Milky Way may be Buñuel’s worst film; at the very least, it may be his most jaded. It starts promisingly enough with Buñuel and Carrière likening points on a map to stars in the sky—a conflation of cultural tradition and transcendental ambition. Two French beggars are making their way to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and via a series of endless diversions, Buñuel takes repetitive jabs at dogma and heresy. Suggesting a heresy itself, Milky Way is disconcerting in its randomness and monotonous in its arguments. It is funny in parts (the filmmakers brilliantly demystify Jesus’s beard during a goofy flashback, and when a beggar fantasizes about the Pope’s death, the man sitting next to him swears he hears the execution from inside the man’s head), and it’s easy to see why it’s considered a precursor of sorts to Monty Python’s Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, but unlike The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty, it’s unusually heavy on its feet for something so picaresque. (Doug Cummings of filmjourney.org mentions that in a 1972 article for Sight and Sound, Jonathan Rosenbaum described The Milky Way as coming “dangerously close to being all notations and no text.”) Buñuel was frustrated by the critical indifference with which Milky Way was greeted, which may explain why he says in The Last Sigh that the film is “neither for nor against anything at all,” and though he evocatively reads the story as a “journey through fanaticism,” I can’t think of more damning evidence against its quality than the director’s own ambivalence. Milky Way is intelligent but pretentious, sardonic but callous, and unlike, say, Simon of the Desert, its single-minded intentions lack for resonance.
After seeing Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters for DVD three times in 12 hours, my surround system probably needed a break, but The Milky Way sounds drab even by mono standards. The illusion of a surround experience isn’t there, and dialogue, though clear for the most part, has its hot spots. The image is stunning, though: I’ve only seen the film once before and I can’t say I ever thought it would look as luxuriant as Buñuel’s next three films, all available on Criterion DVD.
On a new video interview, film scholar Ian Christie remembers the press notes he received when The Milky Way first screened for press back in 1969, and for almost 30 minutes, he acknowledges the film’s understandably unpleasant effect on first-timers, also elaborating on its origins and influences, name-checking the Marquis de Sade, Bataille, Burroughs, and Cervantes along the way. Jean-Claude Carrière, Claude Cerval, Laurent Terzieff, Bernard Verley, Father Jean-Robert Armogathe, and Jean Collet dig into the film some more on "Luis Buñuel: Atheist Thanks to God," which is most interesting for Carrière’s recollection of Buñuel’s reaction to Godard’s La Chionise and how the director was both thrilled and saddened by the events of May 1968. Carrière also chats about the film’s heretical nature in an introductory piece, culled from the same sit-down interview that has figured into other Buñuel DVDs released by Criterion. Rounding out the disc is the film’s original theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring new essays by Carlos Fuentes and Mark Polizzotti, and a compilation of interviews with Buñuel conducted by José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent between 1975 and 1977.
Not everyone’s cup of tea, The Milky Way is paved with heretical intentions.