Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Two men, the older Pierre and the younger Jean, about whom we know and learn little, go on a pilgrimage to a town in Spain where the remains of St. James are kept. Along the way, they run into a number of people of various religious stripes, but mostly heretics who differ with the Church on some of the basic mysteries—the Holy Trinity, the human/divine nature of Christ, the transformation of the host into Christ's body at Communion, free will vs. predestination, etc. Oh, yeah, and Pierre and Jean travel through time and space—well, time at least, as all their encounters seem to be taking place in France and Spain. They run into the pope, the Marquis de Sade, a 4th century heretic named Priscillian, and even Jesus and the Virgin Mary. We see a lengthy argument between a priest and a policeman about whether the host becomes Jesus, or whether Jesus is folded up in the host like meat in a pastry. We see a "holy orgy" in a forest; half-naked women appearing out of nowhere in the bedrooms of two young men in an inn being harassed by a priest; a man in a sinister-looking black and red cape who foretells that Pierre and Jean will have sex with a prostitute who will bear them children; a headwaiter at a fancy hotel lectures his waiters on dogma; and finally, Jesus commits a miracle by curing two blind men—or does he?

When this film, directed by the noted surrealist Luis Bunuel, came out, there was apparently quite a bit of controversy and confusion over it, with some critics angry that it made no sense. This seems like an odd reaction given: 1) the definition of surrealism, and 2) what Antonioni (L'AVVENTURA), Resnais (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD), and Fellini (JULIET OF THE SPIRITS) were doing earlier in the 60s. From today's vantage point, it seems much less strange, and to this raised-Catholic viewer, it seems obvious that it's not the narrative that's important, but the spirited debates over Catholic dogma and heresy. Bunuel was raised Catholic, proclaimed himself an atheist, and remained interested in—and apparently conflicted about—religion all his life. I assumed he was mocking, fairly gently, both the faith that comes up with these inexplicable mysteries and the heretics who insist on different (but similarly inexplicable) interpretations of these articles of faith. Paul Frankeur (as Pierre) and Laurent Terzieff (as Jean) are fine in the lead roles, but they ultimately don't have much to do but witness and react—and note well that their names can be anglicized as Peter and John. Bernard Verley (pictured above) makes for a nice, somewhat testy Jesus, and Denis Manuel and Daniel Pilon sort of take over as our guides in the last half as two provocateurs who are definitely not of the modern age. Interesting, entertaining, and nicely ambiguous. [DVD]

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