Friday, July 4, 2014

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Land Without Bread (1933)

Land Without Bread (1933)
Directed by:  Luis Buñuel.
Written by: Luis Buñuel and Rafael Sánchez Ventura and Pierre Unik.

How does one classify Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread? It is, on the surface anyway, a documentary, although it is now well known that Bunuel staged much of what he shot. Some have claimed that it is a parody of a documentary – which I guess would make Bunuel the father of “mockumentary” films, but that really isn’t the truth either. Bunuel may well have staged scenes for his camera, and he certainly exaggerates the suffering of the people in the Las Hurdes area of Spain. But he is not making this up, like Christopher Guest does. Why is the narration (for the record, I saw the version with French narration and English subtitles) so dispassionate, and matter-of-fact, even when telling of all the misery he shows. And why, if this is a documentary, is it seen as the final installment in Bunuel’s surrealist trilogy, also including Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age D’Or (1930), especially since on the surface, Bunuel’s documentary seems completely and totally serious and realistic?

Bunuel’s film really is an absurd black comedy taking on the form of a documentary. There is certainly a disconnect with the narration and what we actually see. On its surface, the documentary is much like any other documentary of its time – showing us images, while an all authoritative narrator explains what we are seeing. However, the narration is often contradictory of the images, and of itself. The film’s title for example is Land Without Bread, but while bread is scarce in Las Hurdes, it is not unheard of, as the narration says. Hell, there’s even a scene in the movie called Land Without Bread of children eating bread! Other strange examples of the narration comes when the narrator tells us that as they travel through the streets, they constantly encounter sick people – while the image the film shows us at the time is that of empty streets. Or bizarre, pointless non-sequitors like telling us that “balconies are rare in Las Hurdes”, as if balconies are a sign of prosperity. Or the infamous sequence of a little girl lying in the street, who the crew is told has been lying there for three days, and must be sick. They inform us that when they return two days later, the girl has died. The sequence is absurd – who the hell lets children die in the streets? This is blatantly contradicted later in the film, when the narration makes the outlandish claim that 3 men and 11 mules were recently killed by honeybees (really?), and the film does in fact show a mule being stung repeatedly (according to some stories, Bunuel smeared the mule with honey to get the effect he wanted). Later, when a baby dies, the film tells us that “death is a rare event” (contradicted by the absurd honey bee stat) in the village, and that everyone comes out to mourn the loss of the baby – remember these are apparently the same people who let a young girl die alone in the streets.

The most telling example is perhaps the film’s most famous sequence, detailing how meat is rare, and the only time people get to eat goat meat is when one dies accidentally – the film then shows a goat falling off a mountain. Now, unless Bunuel was remarkably fortunate to catch a goat falling off a mountain at precisely when he tried to film a goat falling off a mountain, this has got to be a big tip off that the documentary isn’t really to be trusted. And, in fact, it is now well known that the crew shot the goat, and then threw it off the mountain. But even if all this would be fairly obvious by itself, Bunuel makes it more obvious. He actually has not one, but two shots of the goat falling, from different angles. Now how do you suppose he got that?

The music is another clue that everything is not as it seems. Since the film was released, people have complained that the music doesn’t match the images – but those are the people who take the movie at face value. The music, of course, is entirely inappropriate to what they show. Brahms’ romantic Symphony No. 4, in used, which makes no sense to what we see. You either have to assume that Bunuel was tone deaf to what kind of music to use in a film, or that he is subverting the entire endeavor by picking the most absurd music possible for use in his film.

So what then is Land Without Bread? Does it mock the people of Las Hurdes, who although they are not as bad off as Bunuel portrays them, certainly was then a place that was forgotten by the government, and was desperately poor? Even now, 80 years later, many people of Las Hurdes resent Bunuel’s portrayal of them, as people still think they are some sort of backwater, Spanish hillbillies. But Bunuel doesn’t really mock them he mocks the audience who takes everything that he is saying – even the most absurd things – at face value. He mocks them for being naïve, and not thinking critically about what they are seeing.  And he mocks the whole patronizing genre of documentary that thrusts a camera in the face of “forgotten” people, to let the audience both feel pity for the people in the documentary, and at the same time superior to them. He is also, of course, mocking the Catholic Church (Land Without Bread could very easily be called Land Without God, since bread does play a fairly central role in the Catholic Church).

Whatever you define Land Without Bread as being – and I’ve heard it called a mockumentary, a documentary and a surreal documentary among many, many other things – to me it is undeniably a masterwork by Bunuel. The film clocks in at under 30 minutes in length, but packs so much absurdity, dark comedy, surrealism, and also – it must be said – tragic imagery – into its running time that it boggles the mind. Bunuel was a genius – one of the greatest filmmakers in history. And Land Without Bread, while lesser known than either Un Chien Andalou or L’Age D’Or, to me is the greatest achievement of Bunuel’s early films.

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