Re-viewing Luis Bunuel’s “Land without Bread” (1933)

“Land without Bread” is a fascinating documentary from the younger Bunuel, an extraordinary attempt to portray the sufferings of peasants of Las Hurdes in Spain, very intensely done although without the controlled irony of his later work.

To admirers of Bunuel’s work, the documentary gives an insight into some of the techniques he is fond of applying as a filmmaker. On the emotional side you see a Bunuel who can be deeply persuasive and compelling in a way forcing his audience to think along with the narrator. This is unlike the later Bunuel who leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions and is more realistic in his insight that the poor are people before they’re poor and that poverty is a social condition thereby implying that the poor are as much capable of the excesses of the bourgeoisie as anyone else. This we see for example in the movie Viridiana where the holier-than-thou protagonist ends up almost getting raped by one of the beggars she picks from the street in order to change their lives.

If Dali accused Bunuel of being a “communist” and “atheist” this documentary lends credence to the accusation. There is a sense of commitment to the subject more than the art form. The commitment takes the form of urgency and perspective and the audience is spared of the detachment you would expect from a documentary filmmaker. Bunuel makes demands on his viewers. However, if you remember that this documentary was released in 1933, these are the pre-war generation viewers and fascism is on the rise, the sidelining of artistic demands to political ones becomes kind of obvious. Much later Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) attempts to do something similar in placing political commitment above formalistic ones in his relentless attack on the Nazis and in making a Jew the hero of his film.

The stark realism of the documentary shows in a couple of scenes with animals. A donkey that is eaten away by bees and a goat that falls down the mountain. Apparently Bunuel slaughtered both the animals to give a dimension to his perspective something that would not be very amusing to a modern audience oriented towards animal rights.

You cannot deny that the human suffering of the village is real. You can see the poverty that made fascism possible in Spain. It almost seemed like this was a European colony in Asia or Africa. Such was the poverty of its inhabitants. It’s a poverty that makes artists, poets, saints, revolutionaries and fascists a reality in the same breath. The scene of the little girl lying on the street and “whose gums and throat are inflamed” and that is dead two days later was a particularly poignant one. Says the narrator at one point: “The realism of a painting by Zurbaran or Ribera is nothing compared to reality itself,” thereby acknowledging his limits as an artist in the face of the grim reality faced by the poor and downtrodden. Interestingly, the narrator highlights one segment of reality over that of another. The poverty and pain is emphasized and not the ability of the poor to survive at all costs in this pitiless environment.

My favorite line in the movie is when one of the miserably poor school kids writes on the board a maxim in the book which says: “Respect other people’s property!” Somewhere the narrator subtly echoes what Proudhon says that “property is theft.” In respecting “property” as a social and moral value the poor become complicit in their own oppression. You would expect such poverty to destroy the inner character of the people. But, it does not. “Despite the misery in which the Hurdanos live their moral and religious sense is the same as anywhere else in the world.” Ideology in the form of religion and morality works at a certain level to keep them subjugated forever.

The conclusion of the film makes the argument all the more evident without mincing words:

The misery shown in this film is not without remedy. Elsewhere in Spain, hill people, peasants and workers have achieved better conditions through mutual self-help. They have made demands of the authorities for a better life….will give impetus to the coming elections and lead to a Popular Front government. The military rebellion backed by Hitler and Mussolini seeks to bring back the privileges of the rich. But the workers and peasants of Spain will defeat Franco and his cronies. With the help of anti-fascists from all over the world civil war will give way to peace, work and happiness. And the miserable homes you saw in this film will disappear for ever.

If that did not happen and in fact the poet Lorca was murdered in 1936, the same year that Franco assumed power and was the head of Spain until 1975 the year of his death – that does not take away the historical value of the documentary itself. It’s the attempt of a great artist to divorce reality from aesthetics and in the process create an alternate aesthetic. It’s an idealist at work here with the tools of realism. It’s an artist who is responding to the needs of his generation while at the same time envisions a future that “will give way to peace, work and happiness.”


Categories: Rethinking The World

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