Luis Buñuel

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Stanley Kauffmann

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

[The Milky Way is a] parable of Christianity, but it is free of Christ parallels (Nazarin), of sterile and protracted allegory (The Exterminating Angel), of shallow Evil-as-travail-toward-Good (El). The structure of this new film is taut and well-modeled, the interplay between idea and image is delightful, the whole work is funny and bitter and peculiarly devout from beginning to end. (p. 231)

The film is as well made as Buñuel's pictures have often—not always—been. Occasionally he still lets people walk out of shots, leaving us to stare for a second at empty places where the action was; and occasionally there is a meaning-less emphasis (like a close shot of the wheels of a railroad train arriving in Tours). But for the most part there is discretion, the sense of a mordant eye, and the overall feeling of flow that we get even in lesser films like Viridiana and The Diary of a Chambermaid. (p. 232)

But the superiority of this film, like that of [Simon of the Desert], is not in the filming as such but in the script…. It is Buñuel the author, more than the auteur, who has made The Milky Way the fine work that it is…. After one has enumerated the various elements in the script of wit, slyness, compassion, and human bewilderment, there is left the central and controlling vision; and the source of that vision is to me the most interesting and revealing aspect of the film. It is the artistic concept with which Buñuel began his film career, from which he has often divagated, and to which he has recently returned to use with a new depth and power—the concept of Surrealism.

Some years ago Buñuel said:

It was Surrealism which showed me that life has a moral direction which man cannot but follow. For the first time I understood that man was not free. I already believed in the total liberty of man, but in Surrealism I found a discipline to follow. It was a great lesson in my life. It was also a great step forward into the marvelous and the poetic.

That dialectic between liberty and discipline, resulting in a synthesis that is "marvelous and poetic," has an analogue for Buñuel, I think in the dialectic between God and Church, the synthesis of which is in Simon and The Milky Way. His vision of religion is a Surrealist one. (p. 233)

Today Buñuel's Surrealist view rests on a more sophisticated and mature base than the juxtaposition of incongruous objects and acts. Dead donkeys on pianos or cows on beds no longer serve as adequate manifests of dream-reality. True, The Milky Way scrambles historical periods, refuses to explain how a priest can be inside and outside a bedroom at the same time, and has sweet little schoolgirls fulminating anathema, but these concretized fantasies do not exist merely to shock and stimulate and invigorate our protocols of vision. Underlying them is a philosophic vision that is itself Surrealist: a vision that lifts the history of the Church off the ground into one grand condensation and sustains it through an idea of faith that is larger than any pettifogging theological pedantry. Buñuel is no longer interested in extending consciousness through a series of visual puns and oxymorons, however cruelly scintillating, for which the scenario seems almost an afterthought and justification. With The Milky Way the process seems reversed. In his old age Buñuel has come back to Surrealism with greater purity, with a deeper perception of liberty through discipline. He has begun this picture with a very clear, almost programmatic dream reality, a surreal conviction, and the visual metaphors proceed firmly from it. (p. 234)

Stanley Kauffmann, "'The Milky Way'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 162, No. 6, February 7, 1970), in his Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (copyright © 1968, 1969, 1970 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 231-35.

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