Saturday, October 22, 2011

Land Without Bread (Buñuel. 1933)

"This woman is only 32 years old."

This is my third film from the famous surrealist director, Louis Buñuel, and it also seems to be his most structurally narrative work. Land Without Bread is a documentary, of sorts, that centers on a poor and desolate area in Spain known as Las Hurdes. This is a region that looks to be void of any actual advanced civilization. The tools are primitive, the people are sick and dying and the children have suffered many generations of "inter-marriage".

After learning about this place from a 1927 ethnographical study, Buñuel decided that he wanted to make a documentary with a slightly comedic and surrealist twist. He felt that the documentary genre possessed less truth than even his works of nonsense, and set out to prove it in Land Without Bread. He is cruel to the people of the region by showing them to be primitive, stupid and unable to understand basic things. He mocks their school systems and religious practices to the point that the film seems slanted towards that negative.

I guess this is what Louis Buñuel finds funny, but that should not come as a surprise. In many of his films the audience can tell that he enjoys laughing at the misfortune of others. In Land Without Bread he is poking fun at a genre, but laughing at a group of people who are used to significantly bad press. The area of Las Hurdes has been seen as a cultural and intellectual wasteland since 1635 when comedies were written to portray the people as stupid, barbaric, inbred and unclean. Sadly, a lot of these things seem to be true, or at least that is how Buñuel sees it.

Whether people agree or not on his depiction of the people, everyone disagrees with Buñuel's treatment of animals in Land Without Bread. Surrealists are extreme filmmakers. If he has to smother a donkey with honey in order for the bees to sting it to death - that is fine. If Buñuel asks his crew to shoot a goat and toss the carcass over a mountain top - they do not argue. If the ribbing comedy of the film did not ruin its credibility as a documentary, the slaughtering of animals to reach a desired effect certainly squashes it.

Land Without Bread is a short film (27 mins) that poses arrogantly as an educational documentary. Buñuel knows he is not teaching us anything, but rather making light of and exploiting these unfortunate people. Unlike a great cultural documentary like Mondo Cane, this film leaves me feeling uneasy. That is most likely the exact reaction Buñuel wanted. Good for him...

Land Without Bread: C

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