The Milky Way

The Milky Way

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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.

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DVD
Distributor
UMC Pictures
Runtime
101 min
Rating
NR
Year
1969
Director
Luis Buñuel
Screenwriter
Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière
Cast
Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff, Alain Cuny, Édith Scob, Bernard Verley, François Maistre, Claude Cerval, Muni, Julien Bertheau, Ellen Bahl, Michel Piccoli, Agnès Capri, Michel Etcheverry, Pierre Clémenti, Georges Marchal, Jean Piat