While not the most impenetrable of Luis Buñuel’s films, The Milky Way (1969) may be his most perplexing for first-time Buñuel viewers. The premise is very simple: Two disreputable beggars (Paul Frenkeur and Laurent Terzieff) on a religious pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain have bizarre encounters and adventures of a twisted religious nature along the way. That’s really all there is to it. Think of the two men as Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in The Road to Heresy and you’re close to the spirit of the whole thing. Indeed, the two heroes/observers in Buñuel’s film are about as unlikely Christian pilgrims as Crosby and Hope would have been. The point is that Buñuel’s “attack” on Christianity—more specifically, Catholicism—is far less brutal than the one he made 40 years earlier with L’Age d’Or, the ending of which is still shocking even to a crusty agnostic like me. Milky Way is a much more playful film from Buñuel in his best “surrealism can be fun” mode.
That’s not to say that the movie is without its deeper implications, but really, we’re talking about a film where two pilgrims meet a man wearing a cape (Alain Cuny) who refuses a plea for alms from the younger traveler (who claims to have no money), but gives money to the older one (who admits to having some). He then tells them to go find a harlot “and have children by her.” He goes on to say, “Name the first, ‘You Are Not My People’ and the second ‘No More Mercy’,” before wandering off, suddenly accompanied by a dwarf, who unleashes a dove. They conclude that the man must have had the dwarf hidden in his cape, and that the older man was given money because his beard breeds trust. This then turns into a story the older man claims his mother told him, that of the Virgin Mary (Edith Scob) advising Jesus (Bernard Verley) not to shave off his beard. So … is the older man Jesus? Or is the caped man Jesus or just a magician? Or is anyone? The point is that none of this can be answered, but it makes for interesting and amusing debate, which is what the whole film is about—whether it’s a swordfight between two Catholic factions or an appearance by the Marquis de Sade. In the end, yes, it makes a kind of sense, but it’s mostly Buñuel making light-hearted sport on the sillier aspects of religion. Don’t be afraid of it. Just go with it.