The 20th century’s most disturbing film about faith became available on digital video disc (DVD) last Wednesday when the Criterion Collection released Luis Bunuel’s “1969 masterpiece The Milky Way. [1] It does not fit the usual criteria of devotional cinema. The sort of viewer who felt uplifted by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ might not last through 10 minutes of it. Nonetheless, Bunuel’s half-comic romp through the heresies of Church history has a quality that makes every other film on Christian themes seem dispirited by comparison. Uniquely, the great Spanish director recreates onscreen the strangeness and wonder of the biblical world, that is, a world in which the Divine is always manifest.

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.

Bunuel (1900-83) is best known to mass audiences for bashing the bourgeoisie, as in Belle de jour, his 1967 portrait of an upper-class housewife turned whore, or the drug-running toffs of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which won him his only Oscar. Early in his career he produced the surrealistic short subject The Andalusian Dog in partnership with painter Salvador Dali, a shocker in 1929 but a bore today. A surrealist and fellow-traveler of the Spanish Communist Party who abandoned the Catholic Church as an adolescent, Bunuel might seem the director least likely to succeed at religious cinema.

But when 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.

So the film slips in and out of time through Church history. Two Spanish heretics of the 16th century denounce the doctrine of the Trinity, and escape by stealing the clothing of modern-day hunters. One finds a rosary in a pocket of a stolen jacket, and blasts it to pieces with his shotgun; a few hours later, the Virgin Mary appears miraculously to return the rosary to one of the heretics. The heretics arrive at a modern Spanish country inn and tell the story to the local priest, who tells them not to get excited, for the Blessed Virgin appears all the time and does miracles as a matter of course. “Faith doesn’t come to us through reason, but through the heart,” the heretic offers.

At the conclusion, Jesus restores the sight of two blind men. As they attempt to follow him, they still use their canes to feel their way along the ground. Bunuel states in an interview included in the DVD packet, “He still has a blind man’s reflexes and is not yet accustomed to his new situation. Besides, he doesn’t know what a ditch or a hole looks like.” This striking image captures the gist of Bunuel’s lesson in faith: although divine love may open our eyes, we see, but do not understand. It is not the remoteness of God, but rather the blindness of our own inner eye that makes us stumble.

In some ways all of this is horribly sacrilegious, but it does not turn out that way. The director’s biographer, John Baxter, reports in his 1994 account:

To Bunuel’s embarrassment, the Milky Way was well received by the Church, sections of which were thawing in the liberalism of the Second Vatican Council. Rome even took in good part the fake execution of a recognizable Pope John Paul [II] by Spanish anarchists, and when the Italian censor banned the film, it intervened to reverse the decision. Despite protests from a few priest critics, the Spanish government also refused to ban it. The Festival of Cinema of Religious and Human Values in Valladolid invited the film, and the US National Catholic Film Office belatedly gave [the 1959 film] Nazarin an award as well.

I would argue that Bunuel succeeds at religious cinema where other much-vaunted efforts fail, for example by Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Bunuel inhabits, and re-creates for us, a world in which the supernatural is continuously present. In that respect he is the most biblical of filmmakers. As Harvard theologian James Kugel observed in his 2003 volume The God of Old, the Bible offers us a world in which you may be walking down the road and meet a man, and the man is in fact an angel, but the angel turns out to be God himself.

The divine presence unveils itself to humankind in unpredictable but highly tangible ways. Unlike Franz Kafka, who re-creates something of the style of biblical narrative but offers a world in which the Divine is unknowable and absent, Bunuel shows us the Divine in all its difficulty and absurdity – for the Divine must appear absurd and unreal to human eyes. Bunuel’s surrealism resembles the so-called magical realism of certain Latin American writers only on the surface, for it is not magic, but a higher spiritual plane that we encounter.

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.

Fellini is a different case; his beautiful 1954 film La Strada looks for divine meaning in the simplest and most pathetic human responses, and comes very close to the point. But Fellini, the petulant Italian, demands too much of God; his oracular personage, the Fool, says that every human being, every star, even every pebble has to have a meaning, or nothing has a meaning. Well and good; but what that meaning might be, we do not know with precision, and could not find out. Fellini’s faith was thin and brittle. Bitterness overtook him, and self-absorption, such that his later films are painful to watch.

Bunuel, the Spanish hidalgo, is unafraid of his own doubts, and charges happily at whatever windmills and giants might present themselves. He has the faith of a Job who praises God despite the terrible unaccountability of his actions. The DVD release of The Milky Way is a happy moment, particularly in an edition that includes critical supporting materials.

1. The Milky Way (La Voie lactee), directed by Luis Bunuel; screenplay by Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere. The Criterion Collection, 2007. Price US$29.95.