August 27, 2007


The biblical world of Luis Bunuel (Spengler, 8/28/07, Asia Times)

Busloads of Baptists did not descend on theaters when Bunuel's film was released nearly four decades ago, and it is unlikely that its release on an electronic medium will do much to increase the film's limited audience. That is a pity, for it offers a sort of litmus test for faith: if you don't laugh at the jokes, you probably don't believe a word of what you profess. [...]

[W]hen The Milky Way appeared in 1969, the Vatican embraced it (the Jesuits more than the Dominicans, Bunuel observed with a connoisseur's accuracy) while the director's left-wing friends recoiled in horror. Argentine novelist Julio Cortazar left a private screening in high dudgeon, accusing Bunuel (falsely) of having obtained secret financing from the Church.

Doubt is the handmaiden of faith, for without doubt no faith is required. An impassioned doubter might not make the best priest or parson, but it takes an agony of doubt to produce a great narrative work of art on a religious subject. That is why outsiders often produce the most profoundly religious art - Faust by the "great heathen" Johann Wolfgang von Goethe comes to mind.

On the surface, The Milky Way is surreal. Two French hobos panhandle and hitchhike their way through the venerable pilgrimage route to the Spanish shrine of Santiago of Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the tomb of the apostle James was said to lie. The clochards encounter divine beings, including the persons of the Holy Trinity as well as the Angel of Death, and wander in and out of episodes of Church history. Episodes from the life of Christ are interspersed, including one that is not documented by the Bible (the Virgin persuades Jesus not to shave his beard).

Throughout, Bunuel emphasizes the difficulties, if not the absurdities, of Scripture and doctrine. A cloaked personage (who turns out to be the First Person of the Trinity) encounters the protagonists as they attempt to hitch a ride outside Paris, and quotes the injunction of the prophet Hosea to bear children with a prostitute, and to call their names "You Are Not My People" and "There Is No More Mercy". At the conclusion of the film, the hobos at last reach Santiago, where a prostitute informs them that the pilgrims have ceased to come and the city is empty, whereupon they go off with her to produce these children. Hosea's curse upon errant Israel tells us a great deal about Bunuel's opinion of us.

Various characters attempt to explain transubstantiation and virgin birth (God is in the host just as a rabbit is in a rabbit pate, offers an innkeeper), under improbable and often silly circumstances. Meanwhile, divine beings pass in and out of the story. The clochards meet a young boy who bears the stigmata of Christ, and make a desultory effort to help him. The boy holds out his hand and a limousine stops to pick them up; the clochards unthinkingly blaspheme, and the chauffeur kicks them back out. A bit later, one of the bums expresses the hope that a car that refused to stop for them will crash; a moment later it does so, and in the back seat they find the Angel of Death, who turns on the car radio as it broadcasts a description of hell by St John of the Cross.

The hobos try to panhandle at an elegant restaurant at which the headwaiter and his staff debate the nature of the Eucharist; when the headwaiter dismisses atheists as a lot of madmen, the camera takes us to a discourse by an elegant gentleman who denounces the absurdities of religion. This enlightened opponent of faith turns out to be the Marquis de Sade, who is torturing a young girl who protests the existence of God. So much for rational objections to faith, Bunuel tells us; absence of faith is not rationality but the hatred of God that stems from perverse impulses. [...]

There is not a flyspeck of spirituality in the dreary world of Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who died last month, except perhaps for the pagan spirits flying about in The Virgin Spring. The dour Swede placed his characters (or to be precise, a single character recurrently played by Max von Sydow) in an existential tantrum over God's remoteness. Bergman is the only major director whose actual work is inferior to the lampoons of it (for example, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life ). But God is not remote to Bunuel; on the contrary, God is frighteningly real, for all his inscrutability, even absurdity.

...and, to God's chagrin, divine. How can the latter, in particular, not crack you up?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 27, 2007 8:16 AM
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