Credo quia absurdum: The Milky Way

An eighteenth-century Jansenist and Jesuit duel over the efficacy of free will. A maître d’ patiently explains the singularity of Jesus Christ. Schoolgirls at a summer show announce “This is anathema” in response to Roman Catholic heresies; with each exclamation the scene jump-cuts to marching soixante-huitards; it ends with a firing squad executing the pope, clad in rich ecumenical white.

Welcome to Luis Buñuel’s world and we are mere tourists. Suffused by the Spanish picaresque tradition, 1968’s The Milky Way, released between Belle de Jour and Tristana, dawdles, not quite solving the problem — as the earlier Nazarin (1959) didn’t either — of how to enliven chapters of theological disquisitions. Juxtaposing them against moments of deflating banality help but only just: in the scene mentioned above the head waiter concludes his monologue with “Get rid of this pear. It’s overripe.” During my Buñuel obsession in the early nineties The Milky Way appeared in every Blockbuster shelf that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie didn’t, an odd twist which Don Luis would have appreciated. But the images flow and I get the sense that Buñuel was moving closer to the serenity of The Discreet Charm, in which the problem of narrative itself becomes a droll joke.

Play the bells and whistles included on the Criterion DVD. Co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière accounts of how he gathered material are as valuable as his illuminations into the nature of Buñuel’s incense-suffused atheism. A septuagenarian of formidable intelligence, fluent in several languages but devoid of vanity, Carrière himself is an ideal camera subject, as fans of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy learned last year.

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