Sunday, March 01, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Five

The Milky Way
Directed by Luis Bunuel

For a number of years, Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel's film The Milky Way was one of his unknown films. People knew Un Chien Andalou, made with Salvador Dali at the beginning of their careers, The Discreet Charm of The Bougeousis, made towards the end and nominated for an Oscar, and sporadic films in between, but there was a whole category of his films that were talked about but seldom seen. These films were considered either lost classics or failures; The Milky Way being one of the latter. All I could knew was that it was about people on a religious pilgrammage and it wasn't as good as the Bunuel films that followed.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered the first time that I saw The Milky Way that I loved it. I suppose critics at the time were disappointed that it was a straight-forward depiction of religious argument rather than a mocking of the middle-class. It's a film in which everyone talks about Catholic doctrine the way people in the real world discuss celebrities or sports or the news. It's like the movie was made for me: I find the history of heresy and religious arguments endlessly fascinating. The dialogue consists of much of what goes on inside my head all the time, like the voiceovers of another favorite film of mine The Thin Red Line. For me, the key scene is one in which workers at an expensive restaurant are getting ready for that evening's customers but discuss Christian theology as they do.

Bunuel's characters discuss religion the same way Godard's go on endlessly about politics. Reminding the viewer of the number of passionate arguments in the history of religion and of the many now heretical ideas cast out in the name of forming a universal faith, we see how religion has never been a fixed thing, but subject to the arguments of man.

In addition to being an interesting history of heresy, The Milky Way can also be seen as the autobiographical musings of an old surrealist. "Do you want to know why I'm so fascinated with how the unexpected and the supernatural intrude on our mundane lives? Well, I was brought up to believe in a malleable logic that could explained supernatural events." Bunuel's deadpan film style doesn't hold religious arguments up for ridicule: there's something sad, rather than satiric, about characters earnestly arguing about things that can never be proven. The best example of this is the scene where two 18th century noblemen have a duel because they disagree about the notion of free will. Seems funny, but people really did die over such arguments.

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