The Milky Way (1969)

“Faith doesn’t come to us through reason but through the heart.”

‘The Milky Way’, directed by Luis Buñuel in 1969, is a strange movie that follows two pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela as they encounter episodes from the history of the Catholic Church, priests, prostitutes, nuns, philosophers and soldiers. The pair of travellers are from the 1960s but apparently travel through time (or time warps around them) seemingly without questioning it. It reminds me a little of Alexander Sokurov’s ‘Russian Ark’ in the way it plays with time and space, but, appropriately for a path that crosses the borders of countries, Buñuel uses the pilgrimage route as a way to explore the nature of faith and heresy rather than nationality. I watched this partially for the contrast with Emilio Estevez’s more pro-faith ‘The Way’, and it works. Buñuel’s film resists romanticising the history of the Church, the nature of the act of pilgrimage and the route itself. Often scenes set in the modern day see the pilgrims walking along the edges of roads or hitching lifts from motorists, whilst the historical vignettes they encounter, often surreal in nature, deal with sacrilege, religious dogma on the fringes of the Church, sex and madness. The pilgrims themselves, unlike Martin Sheen’s character in ‘The Way’ don’t have a noble reason for journeying along the path, other than to beg for money, to avoid life or, in the case of one, to get to Santiago de Compostela in order to have sex. For all its philosophical religious subtexts, it’s also a witty movie, the absurdity outrageous and hilarious at the same time. The final scene in which two blind men meet Jesus in the woods near Santiago de Compostela and are given back their sight, only to find they still cannot understand what is around them, acts as a metaphor for the path itself and, indeed, for the whole film. It seems that for Buñuel the pilgrimage route is a spiritual fiction that anyone can journey on but no-one can understand.

Would I recommend it? Yes – in a playful double-bill with the much more palatable, if less profound ‘The Way’.

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