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The Milky Way: Surrealism and Christianity

I am a beginner filmmaker and a lover of cinema history. A history that helped shape the present of this art and its influence on cultures.


Surrealism in art started as a movement founded by Andre Breton in 1924 and was explained in his book The Surrealist Manifesto [1]. But it took a shift from being just a movement to becoming a technique used by filmmakers to show a different reality. A reality that was captured in a unique way using superimpositions, overexposures, fast-motion, slow-motion, reverse-motion, stop-motion, lens flares, large depth of field, shallow depth of field, and more bizarre camera tricks, which created the feeling of being in a dreamlike world [2]. Luis Buñuel, a Spanish director, was a leading figure in surrealist cinema and was known for his works that like the rest of the movement used “shocking, irrational, or absurd imagery and Freudian dream symbolism to challenge the traditional function of art to represent reality” [3]. Although, he was also known for his constant satire of the religious institutions, especially the church. A satire that he considered to be a reaction to the forced education he got as a child in Spain. Education of an extremely catholic nature [4]. This challenge of the catholic institutions was always clear in all of his works. Though he became less aggressive in treating the subject of religion as he grew older and wiser.



The Milky Way or La Voie lactée as it was originally called, is a film that was released in 1969 and was one of the works of Luis Buñuel that further implanted his style in the audience’s mind and his belonging to the surrealist movement. The title itself was very meaningful as the name of the Milky Way was originally known as the Way of St. James. A film that came to an inspiration of its director from the events of May of 1968 and the rebellion of the youth in which the people of France protested against capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism, and traditional institutions. The film tells the story of two men who would go on a pilgrimage from Rue Saint-Jacques in Paris to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. This film, as Jean-Claude Carrière the co-scenarist of Luis Buñuel described is a documentary about heresies and the six mysteries in the Christian religion [5]. However, to achieve this, the story had to be told uniquely. The two men who were just trying to make a living by selling “false relics to the faithful at their destination” [6] would encounter unusual incidents along the way. From the start, they will meet a man who already knew their destination, and who would ask them to do strange things. Then, they will meet a child marked on his forehead and hands with blood and who would help them get a ride then disappear. As the story goes forward, things became stranger. The two men would meet a man speaking Latin as if he was from another era. A man who would then take us with him as an audience to witness a ritual done by people wearing clothes that could be speculated to be from the middle age, and who believed that the body is a prison for the soul. A prison created by Satan, which was one of the mysteries of Christianity. Also, as the film goes on, we get some non-related scenes in which Christ himself appears with his followers, showing the famous miracle of turning water into wine. Scenes that appeared random and as if they are memories, completely unrelated to the story told. In addition, one of the scenes that further reflects the surrealist aspect of this film is when Jean, one of the travelers was dreaming while awake in that presentation performed by little girls, and in which we see a Pope being gunned down by anarchists, and immediately after that the man sitting next to Jean heard the gunshot from inside his head. Furthermore, weirder things would happen as the two men became close to their destination. One of them is when a car crashes because Jean swore at the driver, then we see a young man with white clothes appearing out of nowhere in the car. It was a representation of the devil, wearing such clothes to appear like the angel of death [7]. Also, the scene in which a Jansenist is shown dueling a Jesuit to settle the mystery of grace, and the problem of free will versus predestination [7]. Additionally, as the two men advance in their journey, we witness more incidents from the past related to one of the mysteries previously mentioned. This time we met two young men who would give the travelers gold as a payment to keep their things while they try to protest the cremation that was considered a punishment of a Bishop who died and it was discovered that he was against the church’s beliefs. These two men, who would be called heretics were against the opinion of the church that states that there is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit and they claim that all three are one and only. Then, these two heretics “would steal the clothes of two twentieth-century hunters enjoying a quick dip. [So, they became] mentally as well as sartorially two young bourgeoises” [7]. After that, a surprising incident would happen to them that would change their faith. It was the sudden appearance of the Virgin Mary. So, for a moment the film shifted to tell the story of these two men, who now believe in the Virgin Mary, and what would happen to them in the inn as they took rooms there for the night. That scene contained one of the bizarre things the film ever showed. It is the scene of the priest discussing the Virgin Mary with two young men, who had roommates appear in an unknown way. The priest who we could speculate is Satan himself or maybe Death is trying to get to these people to kill them. And even though they wouldn’t let him in per the owner’s request, there are moments in which we see the devil/priest inside the room as a connotation that he was able to penetrate their heads and weaken their beliefs. A scene that shows the vulnerability of humans and their ignorance in accepting anything without questioning it. A plausible explanation as a sword came out of the clothes of the so-called priest at the end of that scene. This film was surrealist to the end. The two men would discover that their journey was for nothing and that the shrine of St. James was discredited half a century ago after the supposed body of St. James turned out to be that of a Prescillan heretic. This reflects the duality of time they were experiencing, as they met people from different periods. A duality that questions the absolute notion of time, and raises the problem of relativity [5]. All of this confirms the surrealist aspect of this film. However, no one can deny that the story couldn’t have been as beautifully told as it was if it wasn’t for the “vast resources of wit and humor. The absconding madman [who] believes that Christ is in the host the way the rabbit is in the pâté. The pope’s death by firing squad is something we’ll never see. The discussion of theology by the maître d’ and his waiters is in the grand tradition of slapstick comedy. The battling theologians crossing swords for Jesuitical orthodoxy and Jansenistic heresy are a comic version of the Errol Flynn–Basil Rathbone duels reduced to absurdist reasoning. And Mary asks Jesus to please not shave his beard” [7].


All in all, this film is part of the movement of surrealism. Yet, it has its unique signature. It is both a lovely fantasy and a theological essay” [8]. A film that presented “a journey that is simultaneously geographical, temporal and spiritual” [9]. A journey that if analyzed properly, shows that this film is more of an attack on the absurdity of men when it comes to religion than an attack on religion itself. A film that uses the techniques allowed by surrealism brought to life a whole history of religion, and gave the two beggars and by extension us as a contemporary audience the chance to witness this old conflict and hear both sides out. That way every one of us is responsible to draw our conclusion. That was Buñuel’s iconography.


[1] What is Surrealism? Definition and Examples for Filmmakers

[2] The Age of Gold: Surrealist Cinema by Robert Short

[3] Surrealist cinema, Wikipedia

[4] JOURNAL ARTICLE Luis Buñuel: Spaniard and Surrealist by Peter Harcourt, JSTOR

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[6] JOURNAL ARTICLE Review: [Untitled] Reviewed Work: The Milky Way by Luis Buñuel, Jean Claude-Carrière, Serge Silberman Review by: John Calhoun, JSTOR

[7] The Milky Way: The Heretic’s Progress by Carlos Fuentes

[8] Screen: 'The Milky Way’: Bunuel Weaves Surreal Spiritual Journey by Vincent Canby

[9] La Voie lactee (1969) [The Milky Way] - Luis Bunuel - film review

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