Supernal Dreams: Jean-Claude Carriere on Luis Bunuel's Sublime Fantasy, "The Milky Way"

Mystery is the essential element in every work of art.   I will never grow tired of repeating this.

Luis Bunuel to Elena Powinatowska, 1961

“Luis Bunuel’s The Milky Way has the form of a lovely fantasy … a livelier fantasy than The Wizard of Oz. ”

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

The Mysterious Traveller on the pilgrims path.
A Mysterious Traveller on the Milky Way

In 2006 I talked with the distinguished French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, when he was given a special tribute at the San Francisco International Film Festival. We spoke mostly about his long association with the great surrealist director Luis Bunuel, including the six scripts they made into movies: Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire.
Now that The Criterion Collection has issued all of the Bunuel-Carriere films on DVD in superb new transfers and loaded with extras, I thought I’d present some of Mr. Carriere’s comments about his experience working with Bunuel in writing The Milky Way, along with a few notes about the mysteries of the Catholic religion that inspired the screenplay.
Originally, the film was going to open with the following text that Bunuel eventually decided against using, no doubt because he must have felt it explained a bit too much. Instead, he only kept the first paragraph, but placed it at the very end of the movie:

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.

A miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary
A miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary

Throughout the film, apparitions, miracles and accounts of miracles will be treated with the utmost seriousness, in accordance with the traditional representations given by the Church, without any spirit of deformation.
This is in no way a polemical or thesis film but rather a picaresque type tale, which recounts the adventures of two pilgrims who one day took the road for Santiago de Compostela.

JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIERE: We made The Milky Way in 1968 and Luis Bunuel and I had already written three scripts together. But from the very beginning, after our first meeting in 1963, Bunuel was talking to me about making a film about heresies. Then when we were both at the Venice Film Festival, where Belle de Jour won the Golden Lion, we saw a film by Godard, La Chinoise and when we came out of the theater, Bunuel was half-irritated and half-interested. He said to me, “If that is what today’s cinema is like, then we can make a film about heresies.” I said I’d be very happy to do so, and for six months I did a lot of research, going to libraries and ended up with a huge pile of notes about all the possible heresies. So when we first started working on the script I already had a lot of material. Bunuel wanted to explore the whole notion of heresies and the kind of mentality of heretics that was the beginnings of fanaticism. Why someone would choose one detail within a dogma, and replace it with a single idea of his own, even if it meant he’d be burned.
We began by imagining a sort of trip, like a Spanish picaresque novel, and the more we worked the more I realized that every heresy was born from a mystery, and a mystery is something you cannot explain rationally; you just have to accept it. For instance, the idea that a person is one and three at the same time: Father, Son and Holy Ghost (who are each equally and eternally the one true God.) That is a mystery that cannot be explained. Then, the moment you say that God is one, but has three forms, you become a heretic and are in danger of being burned, because you are trying to explain the mystery.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Which is one reason The Milky Way is such a great surrealist movie, because it deals with the irrational in a very rational way.

Mary and Jesus
Mary and Jesus

JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIERE: Yes, and in the Catholic religion, there are six basic mysteries, so I classified all of the heresies and you can relate all of them back to one of the six basic mysteries of Catholicism. It’s something we showed for the first time in a movie. Another one of the mysteries is the double nature of Christ. Jesus is both God and a man, so there is a tendency to say, “Yes he was God, but he was not really a man, he didn’t have to eat or go to the toilet.” Besides that, how could God go to the cross and die? Maybe he only pretended to die. Now, if you say that, you are a heretic and have to be burned. On the other hand, if you say, “Yes, Jesus was a man who was only inspired by God, or visited by God,” you’d also go to the fire! So you have to accept these mysteries because they come from God. “Credo Quia Absurdum”—I believe because it is absurd.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In the movie, you give that same line to a Priest who turns out to be a lunatic.
JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIERE: He also says, “A heresy that denies a mystery can attract the ignorant, but it cannot blot out the truth.” These are all mysteries and although they seem to be contradictory and unacceptable to us, not to God. That became our secret structure for the film. Going from one of the six mysteries to another. Of course, that is never explained in the film itself.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Nor is the simple way you have the two Pilgrims traveling through time on their journey from Paris to Santiago de Compostela. They just casually walk from the 20th Century into some earlier historical era.
JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIERE: One of our first ideas was to try and abolish time and space, which are two classical pillars of movie writing. So we could suddenly find ourselves in Palestine, where Jesus is performing miracles, be in the Middle Ages, where they are burning heretics, or in the Roman Empire, where a Bishop is speaking in Latin. We wanted to go wherever and whenever we liked.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you come to play the role of the heretical 4th-Century Bishop Priscillian of Avila?
JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIERE: Bunuel had already asked me to play the small role of the Priest in Diary of a Chambermaid, and in The Milky Way he asked me to play Bishop Priscillian simply because he said it was very difficult to find an actor who can speak Latin correctly. I loved doing that part.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Wherever the two pilgrims stop, they always encounter people who are talking about religion, even if it’s in an elegant restaurant near Tours.
JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIERE: I remember very well how that scene came about. There is always a period at the beginning of a script where you don’t know yet what direction you want to go in, so when we first started working on the film, we were looking for the structure. Bunuel and I were at a very well known bar in Madrid, Chicote, where we used to go and talk in the afternoons and it was very peaceful and the headwaiter was talking with three of four other waiters about football. Bunuel said to me, “What if they were talking about heresies?” So that became one of the starting points of our script. Then we thought, “What if we lived in a different world where heresies have become an obsession for everybody. So if you walked into a hotel or a tavern you might find two Policemen talking about heresies.”
The bones of a saint
The bones of a saint

Then, in 1968, everybody asked us, “Why are you making a film about religion? Are you crazy? Religion is dead. God is dead.” At that time, everything was politically involved, the Universities, the family, the businesses. Everything had to be politically involved and God was out of it.

: Early in the film there’s an exchange between the mad Priest and a Police Sergeant. The Priest says: “Science is now more than ever in harmony with scripture. The whole world is Catholic now.” The Policeman replies: “What about the Muslims?” The Priest says, “Why the Muslims are also Catholic.”
JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIERE: Yes, it’s irrational and today President Bush and President Ahmadinejad of Iran can both invoke God, but which God? Is it the same God or not? They both talk to God, and God is apparently in favor of both of them. So is this a new mystery?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The first time I saw the film I didn’t really enjoy it that much, because it contains so much Catholic dogma, most of which I didn’t understand. Now, after learning more about Catholicism and having seen the film several times, I find it’s one of my favorite Bunuel movies.
JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIERE: Actually, even if you are Catholic, you have to know a lot, or be a scholar, because it took a long time in research. But when the film was finished, I organized a meeting between three Dominicans and three Jesuits just to talk about all these heresies, and I already knew everything they brought up. When you are a screenwriter and you are going to write a film you really have to become a specialist at a very high level. So I became a specialist in heresies. I even gave a lecture at a seminar to Priests about heresies, and my statements were later published in Études a French magazine published by the Dominican Monks.
It was the same with the film I just made with Milos Forman, Goya’s Ghosts. I had to know everything about Goya. We were introduced to the Alba family in Spain, and we went to visit their palaces and their great private collection of Goya paintings. So in a film like that, or The Milky Way, if I made a mistake or if something is wrong, all of sudden all the theologians would be screaming at me, “This film is worthless! You have confused Monophysitism and Nestorianism.” So you really have to know your subject. But the history of heresies is extremely interesting, because it is a part of the history of the human mind. How do we function? Why does our mind accept this idea, but reject that one? It shows the structures of our mental processes. Now, in the case of religion, you naturally lack a total certainty. If you are sure of something, you don’t need to believe. For example, what if I didn’t believe that we are sitting here together talking.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Maybe we’re simply dreaming.
JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIERE: Yes, and although I know we are talking here in San Francisco, if I do not believe that, then it becomes absolutely fascinating.
You know I am a friend of the Dalai Lama; we wrote a book together, The Strength of Buddhism (Violence and Compassion in the U.S.) and we meet from time to time, or I go to his monastery. We’ve had long talks and one of the radical positions of the Buddhists is to be against any kind of beliefs. It’s quite interesting, and that is perhaps why Buddhism is attracting so many people today, because you don’t have to believe.
In this short excerpt from the script, Bunuel and Carriere present two opposite viewpoints on belief in God:

MR. RICHARD (the Maitre d’): No sensible man can claim that God doesn’t exist.
MR. RICHARD: The proof is in the Bible. Psalms 14:1. The impious fool says in his heart “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.
FIRST WAITER: That’s very convincing.
SECOND WAITER: Yes, it’s very convincing.
MR. RICHARD: Only someone with loose morals denies God. He does so only to satisfy his passions, for who can deny the obvious?
The MARQUIS de SADE is speaking to a young woman he has chained to the wall.
THE MARQUIS de SADE: There is no God, Therese. All religion is predicated on a false premise. The need for God, the creator. But this creator never existed. Is there a religion that doesn’t bear the emblem of pretense and imbecility? But if one religion deserves our special contempt and loathing it is the barbarous law of Christianity, under which you and I were born.

Some notes on the six basic mysteries of the Catholic religion that are discussed in The Milky Way:

  • The dual nature of Christ – God or man?
  • MR. RICHARD: Say the Devil takes the shape of a wolf. He’s a wolf yet he’s still the Devil. It’s the same with Christ.
  • The Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, are each equally and eternally the one true God. This is admittedly difficult to comprehend, and Heretics ridicule it as a mathematical impossibility.
  • The Eucharist and dogma of transubstantiation. In 1215, The Fourth Council of the Lateran, spoke of the bread and wine as “transubstantiated” into the body and blood of Christ: “His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God’s power, into his body and blood.”
  • Origins of evil – How could evil originate from God? Clearly, God did not create Lucifer. The Bible is definite upon this subject. But how a perfect, exalted, and privileged angel could allow evil to grow in his heart remains a mystery.
  • God’s Grace vs. Man’s Free Will. Grace is that act of God by which our souls can turn from a carnal and sinful existence to look toward the world above, toward God. This implies that the only way to achieve glory is through God, a view in keeping with biblical text. However, the same argument states explicitly that we cannot achieve glory through ourselves without the blessings of God. This would seem to mean that free will is not enough in and of itself to achieve virtue.
  • The Virgin Mary – Meaning of Immaculate conception and her absence of original sin. The Catholic Church holds as dogma that Mary was and is Virgin before, in and after Christ’s birth: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege from Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was kept free of every stain of original sin.”

THE MILKY WAY (1969). Directed by Luis Bunuel; screenplay (French & Latin, with English subtitles) by Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere; director of photography, Christian Matras; art direction by Pierre Guffroy; produced by Serge Silberman for Greenwich Film Productions. Running time: 105 minutes.
Pierre (Peter Smith): Paul Frankeur
Jean (John Jones): Laurent Terzieff
Man with cape: Alain Cuny
Jesus Christ: Bernard Verley
The Virgin: Mary Edith Scob
French Innkeeper: Bernard Musson
The mad priest: Francois Maistre
The brigadier Sgt: Claude Cerval
Shepherd with goat: Georges Douking
Bishop Priscillian of Avila: Jean-Claude Carriere
Pricillian Deacon: Jose Berzosa
Pricillian follower: Muni
Pricillian follower: Rita Maiden
Pricillian Follower: Beatrice Constantini
Mr. Richard, the Maitre d’: Julien Bertheau
Waitress: Jacqueline Rouillard
Waiter: Michel Creton
The Marquis de Sade: Michel Piccoli
Thérèse: Christine Simon
Mother at Cana wedding: Claudine Berg
Father at Cana wedding: Gabriel Gobin
Mrs. Garnier: Ellen Bahl
Mr. Garnier: Michel Dacquin
Headmistress of Lamartine school: Anges Capri
Pope shot by revolutionaries: Luis Bunuel
Inquisitor at Council of Braga: Michel Etcheverry
Condemned heretic Jean Ehrman
Young monk who questions Inquisitor: Pierre Lary
Angel of Death: Pierre Clementi
Mother Superior of Jansenites: Muni
Francoise, the crucifed nun: Augusta Carriere
The Count, a Jansenite: Jean Piat
Father Billuard, a Jesuit: Georges Marchal
L’Eveque, Bishop who exhumes heretic: Claudio Brook
Rodolphe, protestant student: Denis Manuel
Francois, his friend: Daniel Pilon
Venta Del Llopo Innkeeper: Marcel Pérès
The Spanish Priest: Julien Guiomar
Civil Guard Sgt: Pierre Maguelon
Virgin in Rodolphe’s room: Claude Jetter
Atheist in Francois’s room: Claude Jaeger
Prostitute: Delphine Seyrig
Blind Man: Marius Laurey
Apostle Peter: Jean Clarieux
Apostle Andrew: Christian Van Cau

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