In a similar way, Buñuel's 1969 film La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way) largely avoided controversy despite the director's catalogue of films criticising Catholicism. The director himself was deeply ambivalent about Christianity. Nine years before he made this film he had delivered his famous quip "I am still, thank God, an atheist", but 8 years later (in 1977) he denied his atheism claiming to be "weary" of his "old aphorism".1. So this film appeared almost exactly half way between those two quotes - and it really shows.
Whilst the subject matter of the entire film is Catholicism, much of it is to do with how that faith has been worked in the 2000 years since Jesus, and, in particular, how different heresies the church has faced have been handled. But this film is different from Buñuel's other films in that it actually contains scenes from, or from around the Gospels.
In many respects the film has much in common with the later Monty Python's Life of Brian. Not only are both films the product of well read, if irreverent artists, but they use humour as their primary tool, and incorporate short sections of the gospels into a more extensive filmic collage. Furthermore, fans of the Python films in general will feel instantly at home in Buñuel's surrealism, replete with its jumbled time lines and improbably articulate discussions, and the film's use of a quest to bond together various episodes in the loosest possible manner.
The film follows the bizarre journey of two particularly impious pilgrims as they journey to Santiago. As their journey unfolds they inhabit the same space as numerous characters from through the ages who are, in some way, related to Catholicism. Some are modern day figures discussing Catholic doctrines. Others are more historical figures related to Catholicism in some way. At times these connections are somewhat obscure such as the appearance of the Marquis de Sade. Sometimes the pilgrims interact with the characters they encounter, at other times they simply happen to be in the same place at the same time.
Their first two encounters are both based on the bible. As they walk along a road they meet a man who they ask for alms. Learning that the younger of the two travellers has no money, the stranger refuses to give him anything, yet when the older man admits he already has some money, he receives a wad of notes. This strange encounter ends with the man commanding them to "go and find a harlot, and have children by her. Name the first, 'You Are Not My People', and the second, 'No More Mercy'". To the uninitiated this dialogue may seem fairly meaningless, but it is recontextualisation of two passages from the Bible - Jesus's conclusion to the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:29 & Luke 19:26) and God's instructions to Hosea (Hosea 1).
As they part ways, the pilgrims observe a smaller figure alongside the stranger (that they had not previously noticed), and a dove flies alongside - completing the Trinity. Somewhat confused, they conclude the stranger favoured the older man because of his beard. This leads to an amusing flashback to the 1st century where Mary persuades Jesus not to shave off his beard.
Also present in this scene is a young boy who the pilgrims are just about meet. The pilgrims are concerned by the state the boy is in - he has marks in his hands and in his side - but they move on before they realise who he really is.
There follows a series of brief vignettes as the pilgrims encounter an eloquent priest who turns out to be mad, a group of early gnostic Christians and find only an ambiguous answer to their test of God's existence. The next scene revolves around a number of waiters who are discussing theology, philiosophy and various heretical beliefs. Their discussion is intercut with a scene of the Marquis de Sade and another featuring Jesus. Jesus runs to greet his disciples - they are late for the Wedding at Cana where Jesus tells the Parable of the Shrewd Steward. Tantalisingly the scene ends as soon as Jesus gives the command to fill the water jugs and serve the wine. We are not shown whether or not the miracle actually occurs. I find the start of this segment particularly memorable. There's something fresh and exciting about the way Jesus enters the scene running - even if it is because he is late.
Back on the road the strange encounters continue: a school speech day with a variety of dogma drenched "poetry" that is so unusual it leads one of the characters to imagine the pope in front of a firing squad; a scene from the Spanish Inquisition; an inhabitant of purgatory; a duel between a Jansenist and a Jesuit; and some reformers who have a vision of the Virgin Mary.
When they finally arrive in Santiago they are greeted by a whore who takes them into the woods for a "frolic in the grass" and then repeats the command from the strange man at the start of the film. She is the one who is to bear the children named 'You Are Not My People' and 'No More Mercy'.
This leads to the film's final scene which is again of Jesus and the disciples, who appear in the same woods as the pilgrims, the whore and two blind men. Initially Jesus appears to heal the blind men, but as they stroll off towards Jesus's showdown in Jerusalem the camera focuses on a ditch. Whilst Jesus and his apostles negotiate it with ease, his two newest followers still seem to be relying on their sticks to help them to cross the gap. That said, although that's the most obvious reading it's not quite as clear cut as many would have you believe. For a start we see only the character's feet - their actual identity is assumed rather than a certainty. Furthermore, one of the two blind men recites the line about seeing "men as trees walking" which combined with Jesus's use of saliva to heal the men, indicates that it is Mark 8:25-28 which is being portrayed. Crucially, the men in the text are not properly healed until Jesus lays his hands on them a second time, and as the film ends abruptly at this point, the possibility remains that the completion of this miracle lies beyond the end of the film.
So whilst there's a scepticism about Christianity and its founder in the film this is not an out and out attack on the man from Nazareth. Indeed Buñuel could easily have included even more difficult passages from the scriptures such as the incident with the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark 7:25-30. It's unclear whether the film's ambiguity in this respect is a reflection of Buñuel's own uncertainty or his concern over how a more negative portrayal would be received by either the censor or the general populace. Indeed the film is far more damning regarding it's more specifically Catholic concerns than about Jesus himself.
Whilst this is, then, not a particularly uplifting film, it does provide fresh insights into several biblical texts by placing them in new contexts. And whilst it's certainly sceptical about Christianity, the fact that it's been written by people who know their Catholicism inside out, and are not afraid to make a film that is inaccessible to those do not, means the film at least deserves some respect even if ultimately we disagree with its, somewhat tenuous, conclusions.
Those interested in this film might also like to read the write-ups by Doug Cummings, and Alan Dale. You can also read the script and view a huge number of images at american-buddha.com
1 - Cited in Wikipedia article on Luis Buñuel.