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The Milky Way (1969 film)

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The Milky Way
French theatrical release poster
FrenchLa Voie lactée
Directed byLuis Buñuel
Written byLuis Buñuel
Jean-Claude Carrière[1]
Produced bySerge Silberman
StarringPaul Frankeur
Laurent Terzieff
Denis Manuel [de; fr]
Daniel Pilon
CinematographyChristian Matras
Edited byLouisette Hautecoeur
Music byLuis Buñuel
Distributed byMedusa Distribuzione (Italy)
CCFC (France)
Release dates
  • 28 February 1969 (1969-02-28) (Italy)
  • 15 March 1969 (1969-03-15) (France)
  • 6 July 1969 (1969-07-06) (West Germany)
Running time
91 minutes (France)
101 minutes (Germany)
105 minutes (USA)
West Germany

The Milky Way (French: La Voie lactée) is a 1969 comedy-drama film directed by Luis Buñuel. It stars Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff, Denis Manuel, and Daniel Pilon, and features the likes of Alain Cuny, Michel Piccoli, and Delphine Seyrig in its ensemble cast. Buñuel later called The Milky Way the first in a trilogy (along with his subsequent films The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty) about "the search for truth."[2]

The title of the film is taken from a popular name used for the Way of St. James, a route often traveled by religious pilgrims that stretched from northern Europe to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This is where the remains of St. James were reputed to be buried.[3] The film follows the picaresque journey of two vagabond travelers, who seem to be making the pilgrimage as a means of escape. Along the way, they witness a series of bizarre incidents that involve persons named in documented heresies in church history. At key moments, they encounter Jesus and the Virgin Mary, as well as modern believers and fanatics.

The plot is non-linear and functions as a highly symbolic travelogue across time and space, set over the last two thousand years. It encompasses much of Christian history. While using satire to critique religion from a skeptical perspective, the film also explores the act of spiritual quest and search for meaning.

The highly idiosyncratic film originally met with limited success, but, in the 21st century, it is very well-regarded amongst film enthusiasts and critics.


Two French vagrants, Pierre and Jean, decide to take the pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela along the traditional Way of St. James. As they walk along a roadside in France, they encounter a man in a black cape who tells them to sleep with a prostitute and have children with her, an instance of the prophecy in Hosea. Then the pilgrims reach an inn, they find a police sergeant and a priest discussing the nature of the eucharist and transubstantiation. The priest is taken away by staff from a nearby mental hospital. Later, the pilgrims find shelter for the night on a farm, while a secret Priscillianist sect is meeting nearby. Their secret service involves ritual repetition and a short statement of faith, followed by sexual encounters between the male and female congregants.

Next, the pilgrims unsuccessfully seek food at an expensive restaurant, where the manager is explaining to his staff the controversy of the divinity of Jesus Christ as debated during the First Council of Nicaea. Later, the pilgrims pass a boarding school and watch the children perform for their parents and teachers. As a class of young girls recites heresies and proclaim them "anathema", one of the pilgrims imagines the execution of a pope by a band of revolutionaries.

After the pilgrims curse a passing car, it crashes and the driver is killed. Investigating the wreckage, they encounter a strange man (perhaps the Angel of Death or the Devil), who gives one of the pilgrims the dead man's shoes. At a chapel along the way, the pilgrims encounter a group of Jansenist nuns, who are nailing one of their group to a wooden cross. Outside, a Jesuit and a Jansenist duel with swords while arguing over doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace for sinners.

When the pilgrims reach Spain, they agree to take care of a donkey for two other men. These new men leave the pilgrims and travel to a nearby abbey where they watch the official desecration of a priest's grave because of the posthumous discovery of his heretical writings regarding the nature of the Trinity. The two men proclaim loudly that the Godhead is not trinitarian and escape. In the forest, they switch clothes with some hunters swimming in a lake and destroy by gunfire a rosary discovered in one of their pockets. Later that night, a vision of the Virgin Mary appears to the pair and returns the rosary. The two men and the original pilgrims meet again at an inn, where they tell a local priest about their recent miraculous vision. The priest recounts another miracle, in which the Virgin Mary took on the form and performed the duties of an errant nun for several years until the nun returned to her convent and was welcomed as if she had never left. As the two men get ready for bed, the priest further discusses the Virgin Mary, and how her virginity remained intact during both the spiritual conception and the physical birth of Jesus, like "sunshine penetrating a window".

On the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, the two pilgrims meet a prostitute who claims that the city is empty of pilgrims because it was discovered that it is not the remains of St. James, but those of Priscillian, that are held there. She says she wants to become pregnant by them, and gives the same strange names for the children as those predicted by the man in the cape at the beginning of the film. The trio heads into the woods, and, nearby, two blind men encounter Jesus and his disciples. Jesus heals their blindness, but they cannot understand what they see or walk unaided.



Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière wrote the first draft for The Milky Way in 1967 at the Parador Cazorla in the Andalusian mountains.[4]


In the film, two men travel the ancient pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and meet embodiments of various Catholic heresies along the way. These religious events are based on actual historical documents. For instance, the archbishop whose corpse is exhumed and publicly burned is based on Archbishop Carranza of Toledo.[3] The film ends with the following text:

Everything in this film concerning the Catholic religion and the heresies it has provoked, especially from the dogmatic point of view, is rigorously exact. The texts and citations are taken either direct from Scripture, or modern and ancient works on theology and ecclesiastical history.[5]

The film plays with time. The two main characters often encounter individuals in the dress of various time periods throughout history, or historical events take place in the modern setting of the film, including scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. In his autobiography, Buñuel explains that he wanted to put Jesus Christ in the film because he "wanted to show him as an ordinary man, laughing, running, mistaking his way, preparing to shave — to show, in other words, all those aspects completely alien to our traditional iconography."[3]

Often, the encounters involve conversations or arguments regarding a specific Catholic doctrine or heresy and are intended to show the absurdity of making absolute statements about such topics as a "matter of fact". Two heresies prominent in the film are Priscillianism and Jansenism.


On 21 August 2007, The Criterion Collection released The Milky Way on DVD.[6] On 23 July 2019, Kino Lober made the film available via Blu-ray.[7]


On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, The Milky Way has an approval rating of 95% based on 19 reviews, with an average score of 7.7/10.[8]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote "Everything is photographed straightforwardly, in cheerful but not bilious color, and seen with documentary-like clarity."[9]

Neil Lumbard of Blu-ray.com called the film "A hypnotic and surreal journey only a director like Buñuel could bring viewers on."[10]


  1. ^ Kelsey, Colleen (2 June 2015). "Jean-Claude Carrière's Theater of the Absurd". Interview.
  2. ^ "The Milky Way". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 18 April 2010.
  3. ^ a b c Buñuel, Luis. My Last Sigh. Trans. Abigail Israel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. p. 245. ISBN 0-8166-4387-3.
  4. ^ Gonzalez, Ed (20 April 2007). "DVD Review: Luis Buñuel's The Milky Way on the Criterion Collection". Slant Magazine.
  5. ^ French, Lawrence (26 February 2009). "Supernal Dreams: Jean-Claude Carriere on Luis Buñuel's Sublime Fantasy, "The Milky Way"". cinefantastiqueonline.com. Retrieved 18 April 2010.
  6. ^ Kehr, Dave (21 August 2007). "New DVDs". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 June 2024.
  7. ^ "Kino: Two Luis Bunuel Films Detailed for Blu-ray". 7 May 2019. Retrieved 19 June 2024.
  8. ^ "The Milky Way (1969)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved 19 June 2024.
  9. ^ Canby, Vincent (27 January 1970). "Screen: 'The Milky Way':Bunuel Weaves Surreal Spiritual Journey". The New York Times.
  10. ^ Lumbard, Neil (22 August 2019). "The Milky Way Blu-ray Review". Retrieved 19 June 2024.

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