Land Without Bread (Luis Buñuel / Spain, 1932):
(Terre sans Pain; Las Hurdes)

No need to fabricate surrealism, it exists naturally in "the land unknown to Spaniards until the first road was built in 1922," Luis Buñuel at his most vehement films it. The "étude de géographie humaine" introduces the skull-adorned gateways and headless roosters of civilization on the cusp of the Second Republic, before pushing through purgatory (ruined monasteries overrun by toads) and finding a squalid Hades in Las Hurdes. Verdant valley and barren village, tainted water and diseased meat, wizened kids and unformed adults. Spring brings only bad fruit and dysentery, snakebites don’t kill but ointments do, the camera surveys the famished, glowering faces of children and ponders the fairy-tale drawing hanging in the classroom, "it’s absurd." There are no songs yet churches are indecently lavish, "the only luxurious things we saw." A world less medieval than neolithic, deformed by poverty, pestilence and ignorance, where even mountain goats lose their footing (or are shot down by the crew). A multilayered critique of ethnographic miserabilism, Buñuel’s merciless manipulation of the documentary format is mordant (dispassionate narrator Abel Jacquin detects "a certain flair for interior design" in a wretched hut), profoundly outraged in its vision of extreme human degradation and struggle, and unwavering in its faith in confrontational imagery. The donkey from L’Age d’Or is here devoured alive by honeybees, the lifeless baby in the trough-coffin floats on its way to Mexican Bus Ride, a crone prays in the dark and assures us that "nothing keeps you awake like thinking about death." Into Gummo it goes, the whole thing. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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