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The Criterion Collection presents
The Milky Way (1969)

"Don't shave, my son. You're much better with a beard."
- The Virgin Mary (Edith Scob), speaking to a pre-shave Jesus

Review By: Jeff Wilson  
Published: August 30, 2007

Stars: Laurent Terzieff, Paul Frankeur
Other Stars: Michel Piccoli, Delphine Seyrig, Edith Scob, Bernard Verley, Alain Cuny
Director: Luis Bunuel

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for nudity, adult themes, violence, onscreen crucifixion
Run Time: 01h:41m:53s
Release Date: August 21, 2007
UPC: 715515025126
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-A-B+ B+

DVD Review

Well, Criterion has probably had harder sells than this, but no one would accuse Luis Bunuel's 1969 comedy The Milky Way of being a crowd pleaser. This religious satire saw limited re-release in specialty houses a few years back, and I recall the audience I saw it with being quite perplexed as to what exactly was so humorous about the film. Criterion could have done newcomers to the film a big favor by providing contextual information, but that's one area in which an otherwise excellent DVD falls well short of the mark.

The story, such as it is, functions as a framing device for Bunuel's detours into satire. Two men, Jean (or John, Laurent Terzieff) and Pierre (Peter, Paul Frankeur), head from France to Spain on a pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela, where the bones of the apostle James are buried. Neither man has enough money to simply drive there, so they must hitchhike and walk the highways, which brings them into contact with people from multiple time periods, all of whom have something to say about God and religion. We also get to see Jesus a few times, as he considers whether to shave, and otherwise hangs out.

The initial problem any typical audience will have with the film is the occasionally confusing religious content. I will admit to more years of Catholic schooling than I care to remember, including four years of Jesuit high school, and I don't recall hearing much about the various heretics herein. And why should I, or anyone else have heard of them? The end point is that who and what they are isn't that important, at least from a historical point of view. Bunuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere add a disclaimer at the end about the historical veracity of the heresies explored in the film, but that's almost beside the point. The exploration of heresy points out the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of Catholicism itself, and by extension, any religion. Our viewings of Jesus often contrast sharply with the strict, hardline stances taken by arbiters of the faith in the film, indicating the ways in which organized religion has diluted and corrupted its basic purpose.

The film remains difficult going in parts, because even when leavened with humor, these aren't always especially interesting topics to discuss. Even a clever idea such as a Jesuit challenging a Jansenist to a duel over dogma turns out to be less satisfying in the execution, as we hear the men debate points of theology while crossing swords. Religion is funny, but dry debate isn't, regardless of the manner in which it's carried out. Terzieff and Frankeur anchor the picture through their nonplussed reactions to everything that goes on around them. Their pilgrimage ends up being for less than holy reasons, and their arrival at the end of the film is capped with accepting a hooker's invitation for a threesome. If anything, the two characters point out the abject ridiculousness of religion in general, as the various debates about transubstantiation and the Trinity and so on fail to register at all. Religion must be about something deeper and more fundamental than dogma if it is to have any value.

At the end of the day, most people will simply want to be entertained by any given film, and on that count, The Milky Way doesn't really match up, especially to other Bunuel films like Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. This is a challenging film, and one that requires multiple viewings to really dig into. If you're willing to meet the film on those terms, and are amenable to the subject matter, then there is plenty here to appreciate. Otherwise, it's a film that I'd recommend renting, as it's going to be an acquired taste for many.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The picture is framed at its theatrical ratio of 1.66:1, and it looks very nice, with very nice colors (there is a greenish tint to the image) and good detail. The subtitles are clean and of the usual high Criterion quality.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The original mono track sounds acceptable, considering the limitations therein.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Booklet with essays
Extras Review: The extras presented here are all solid material, but none dig too deeply into the film itself, which is a shame. If a Criterion disc ever really needed a commentary track, this film is one of them. Anyway, the lengthiest item is the short documentary Luis Bunuel: Atheist Thanks to God (32m:00s), which features interviews and discussion of Bunuel and the film, even including a priest who weighs in on the film. Worthwhile. Also included is a long interview with critic Ian Christie (28m:09s), which covers the filmmaker and the film in a general way. The original trailer is provided in a 16:9 transfer with English subtitles, and the usual Criterion booklet has useful material that includes two essays and an interview with Bunuel about the film, originally done in the 1970s.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Bunuel's esoteric take on Catholicism and its attendant heresies isn't going to suit many tastes, but those who are willing to tune in to its particular wavelength will find much to chew over. Criterion's DVD is excellent, aside from a glaring lack of background information on the religious material in the film.


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