The Milky Way (French: La Voie lactée) is a 1969 surrealist film directed by Luis Buñuel. It stars Laurent Terzieff, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Georges Marchal and Michel Piccoli. Buñuel later called The Milky Way the first in a trilogy (along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty) about “the search for truth."
The title of the film is taken from a popular name used for the Way of St. James, a route often traveled by religious pilgrims that stretched from northern Europe to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the Remains of St. James were reputed to be buried. The film follows the picaresque journey of two vagabond travelers, who take the pilgrimage, not necessarily for religious reasons, but more as a means of escape, and along the way, witness a series of bizarre incidents involving the perpetrators of documented heresies in church history, and at key moments encounter Jesus and the Virgin Mary, as well as modern believers and fanatics. The plot is non-linear and functions as a highly symbolic travelogue across time and space, set over the last two thousand years, encompassing much of Christian history that, while using satire to critique religion from a skeptical perspective, also attempts to extract verities out of the act of spiritual quest and search for meaning.
The highly idiosyncratic film originally met with limited success but is today very well-regarded amongst film enthusiasts and critics.
In the film, two men travel the ancient pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and meet embodiments of various Catholic heresies along the way. These religious events are based on actual historical documents. For instance, the archbishop whose corpse is exhumed and publicly burned is based on Archbishop Carranza of Toledo. The film ends with the following text:
The Milky Way plays with time. The two main characters often encounter individuals in the dress of various time periods throughout history, or historical events take place in the modern setting of the film, including scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. In his autobiography, Buñuel explains that he wanted to put Jesus Christ in the film because he "wanted to show him as an ordinary man, laughing, running, mistaking his way, preparing to shave — to show, in other words, all those aspects completely alien to our traditional iconography."
Often, these encounters involve conversations or arguments regarding a specific Catholic doctrine or heresy, and are intended to show the absurdity of making absolute statements about such topics as a "matter of fact". Two heresies prominent in the film are Priscillianism and Jansenism.
Two French vagrants, Pierre and Jean, decide to take the pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela along the traditional Way of St. James. As they walk along a roadside in France, they encounter a man in a black cape who tells them to sleep with a prostitute and have children with her. Then the pilgrims reach an inn, where a police sergeant and a priest are discussing the nature of the eucharist and whether the body of Christ enters it by transubstantiation or consubstantiation. The discussion ends absurdly as the priest is taken away by staff from a nearby mental hospital. Later on, the pilgrims find shelter for the night on a farm while a secret Priscillian sect is meeting nearby. The secret service involves ritual repetition, a short statement of faith, followed by sexual encounters between the male and female congregation. Next, the pilgrims seek food from an upscale restaurant, wherein the manager is explaining to his staff the controversy of the divinity of Jesus Christ as debated during the First Council of Nicaea. Later on, the pilgrims pass by a boarding school and watch the children perform for their parents and teachers. As a class of young girls recites heresies and proclaim them "anathema", one of the pilgrims imagines the execution of a pope by a band of revolutionaries. Further on, after they curse a passing car, it crashes and the driver is killed. Investigating the wreckage, they encounter a strange man, maybe the Devil, who gives one of the pilgrims the dead man's shoes. Then the pilgrims come across a chapel, where a group of Jansenist nuns is nailing one nun to a wooden cross. Outside, a Jesuit and a Jansenist have a sword duel while arguing over doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace for sinners.
Finally, the two pilgrims reach Spain, where they agree to take care of a donkey for two other men. These new men leave the pilgrims travel to a nearby abbey where they watch the official desecration of a priest's grave because of the discovery of heretical posthumous writings regarding the nature of the trinity. The two men proclaim loudly that the Godhead is not trinitarian and escape. In the forest, they switch clothes with some hunters swimming in a lake, and destroy by gunfire a rosary discovered in one of their pockets. Later that night, a vision of the Virgin Mary appears to them and returns the rosary. The two men and the original pilgrims meet again at an inn, where they tell a local priest about their recent miraculous vision. The priest recounts another miracle, in which the Virgin Mary takes the form and duties of an errant nun for several years until the nun returns to the convent as if she had never left. Later that night, the priest further explains how her virginity must have remained intact during both the spiritual conception and the physical birth of Jesus, like "sunshine penetrating a window".
On the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, the two pilgrims meet a prostitute who wants to become pregnant and gives the same names for the children as those predicted by the man in the cape at the beginning of the film. In the last episode of the film, two blind men encounter Jesus and his disciples. Their blindness is healed but they cannot understand what they are seeing or walk unaided.Paul Frankeur - Pierre
Laurent Terzieff - Jean
Alain Cuny - L'homme à la cape / Man with cape
Edith Scob - Virgin Mary
Bernard Verley - Jesus
François Maistre - French Priest
Claude Cerval - Brigadier
Pierre Clémenti - The Devil
Julien Bertheau - Maitre d'Hotel
Michel Piccoli - Marquis de Sade
Georges Marchal - The Jesuit
Jean Piat - The Jansenist
Daniel Pilon - François
Claudio Brook - The Bishop
Julien Guiomar - Spanish priest
Marcel Pérès - The Posadero
Delphine Seyrig - The Prostitute
Jean-Claude Carrière - Priscillian
Michel Etcheverry - The Inquisitor
Rotten Tomatoes reports 93% approval for The Milky Way, with an average rating of 7.7/10 among 14 critics.