“Thanks be to God I am an atheist.”
Perhaps Luis Buñuel’s most famous quote. And nowhere in his filmography is the absurdity of religion more fully expressed than in ‘The Milky Way’. And yet the structure and content of the film (it’s a morality play about a pilgrimage; all of the theological debate is taken from bona fide religious texts) demonstrate an approach to the material deeper and more intellectual than mere satirical spoofery.
And then there’s Buñuel’s Jesus (played by Bernard Verley): avoiding all the reverent clichés typical of portrayal’s of Christ, here we have Christ as identifiably human – he laughs, he banters with the disciples, he even starts to shave his beard at one point until Mary protests that it suits him – grinning at the complement, he throws away bowl of water he was about to use.
Perhaps the only other film that depicts Christ as a man, not as some ethereal being possessed of a zen-like stillness, is Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ (the indigenous title, ‘Il vangelo secondo Matteo’ leaves out the word “Saint”). Pasolini, too, was an atheist.
‘The Milky Way’ starts with myriad scenes of roads. Cars, vans and lorries go hurtling by. Apposite, since what follows is essentially a road movie. Hands up everyone who thought ‘The Straight Story’ – mode of transport: ride-on mower – was the slowest road movie in cinema. ‘The Milky Way’ beats it by a short head. It’s a road movie where the protagonists walk.
The protagonists are Pierre (Paul Frankeur), an old man with the appearance of a tramp, and Jean (Laurent Terzieff), a younger man who wears a pretty cool leather jacket. They’re undertaking a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain where they intend to pay worship at the tomb of James the apostle. En route, they meet an inn-keeper and a police officer who debate the doctrine of transubstantiation with a priest (the priest takes umbrage at certain comments, throws his glass of wine in the cop’s face and is promptly escorted back to a mental institution); two fellow pilgrims who take a detour (geographically and through time) to dispute dogma regarding the Holy Trinity; a nun who is rather too enthusiastic about sharing the suffering of Christ on the cross; a Jesuit and a Jansenist who decide to settle their differences* in a duel and appoint our heroes as their seconds; and the pious headmistress of a girls’ school whose theological brainwashing of her young charges is applauded during an open day.
This latter is simultaneously the funniest, most chilling and most subversive scene in a film that compacts a plethora of hilarious and subversive moments into its pacy and endlessly entertaining hour-and-a-half running time. Pierre and Jean have happened upon the private school, gatecrashed the open day and successfully begged food and wine. They lounge on the beautifully-kept lawn along with the parents and other visitors while the headmistress presents “a prologue by our young girls”. These impeccably mannered little moppets, not one of them older than ten, take the stage and curtsey, then proceed to recite a catechism of unforgiveness: “If anyone holds that the sacrifice of the Mass is a blasphemy against the sacrifice of Christ who died upon the cross … anathema upon him! If anyone holds that God’s commandments are impossible to keep even for one who is justified and in a state of grace … anathema upon him!” Buñuel cuts to a group of grim-faced revolutionaries taking aim at a white-robed figure up against a wall. The scene cuts back to the school as the gunfire rings out. One of the parents looks around as if the sounds were coterminous to the current setting; “Is there a shooting range around here?” he asks. “No, it’s me,” Jean replies, totally deadpan: “I was imagining they were shooting a Pope.”
It’s an either/or kind of scene. You’ll either find it acerbically funny (like me) or you won’t. No inbetween. (It’s Buñuel playing the Pope, by the way.)
The ending is pitched on a similar level – funny, but barbed with the sharpest cynicism. Pierre and Jean reach Compostela, but are tempted by the devil (in the shapely shape of Delphine Seyrig in a too-tight blouse: hell, I’d be tempted) and don’t make it to the shrine. They also miss the Second Coming. Two other drifters do. Encountering the returned Jesus, he cures them of their blindness. A wickedly effective last shot suggests, however, that a miracle isn’t necessarily a cure.
*Jesuit: I know that you … still deny the true doctrine of Grace.
Jansenist: In the fallen state of nature, inward grace is irresistible.
Jesuit: Do you dare repeat that in a more retired spot?
Jansenist: Sir, I am at your disposal.