February 01, 2011

Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan (1933)

Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, considered now a master of cinema and one of the greatest artists of surrealism, had quite a troubled career during his first 10 years as a director. Having worked closely with Jean Epstein as assistant director, Buñel debuted in 1929 with the short film "Un chien andalou" ("An Andalusian Dog"). The innovative, surreal short film (written by Buñuel and painter Salvado Dalí) faced great controversy on its release, but that was nothing compared to Buñuel's follow up: "L'Âge d'Or". Funded with the aid of French nobleman Vicomte Charles de Noailles and released in 1930, "L'Âge d'Or" ("The Golden Age") was a fierce and merciless attack to social conventions and the Catholic Church under the guise of an experimental comedy. Not surprisingly, the response against it was even larger, to the point that the Police of Paris effectively banned the film. After this controversy, Buñuel returned to Spain, where anarchist Ramón Acín decided to fund Buñuel's next project. This project turned out to be 1933's "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan".

"Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" (known in English as "Land without Bread") is basically an exploration of the region of Las Hurdes, in Extremadura, Spain. The short documentary depicts the life in this high mountain region, as the crew moves from town to town, showcasing the difficulties the inhabitants face in this hostile region, which get worse due to the state of misery in which they live. Poverty, hunger and disease haunt the villagers, and their only way they have to face those demons are their own set of superstitious beliefs (which sometimes turn up to be remedies of even worse consequences). Buñuel's travelogue moves from one bleak image to another, covering the way the inhabitants of Las Hurdes live, die, work and try to find some solace amidst the darkness. Education, farming and health care in Las Hurdes is showcased as deficient, as the film is actually a harsh attack to the government's policies. While originally a silent film, a narration in French by Abel Jacquin was added afterwards, that describes the events depicted in a very grim and detailed manner.

Given Buñuel's reputation as a master of surrealism and creator of oniric images, the idea of a documentary crafted by him sounds a bit strange; however, in "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan", realism and surrealism collide and result in a powerful hybrid vehicle to deliver Buñuel's message. Written by Buñuel along Rafael Sánchez Ventura and Pierre Unik (who were assistant directors), "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" was inspired by Maurice Legendre's study of the region's inhabitants. This very real ethnographic work served as basis to the surreal vision of misery that is "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan". A bleak world so real that ultimately feels unreal, enhanced by Buñuel's eye becomes surreal. Surrealism in "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" exists, and is present not to create fantasy, but to accentuate reality. To exaggerate it, to mercilessly use the documentary format to make a point because, "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" is anything but objective. Already a true master of visual symbolism, Buñuel uses images the way Soviet filmmakers used montage.

Of course, there is a certain degree of truth in the film, people of Las Hurdes in those years did live in extreme conditions and poverty and disease were the norm; however, Buñuel carefully has selected (or even created) the appropriate images and the necessary words to bring out the emotions in his audience, to transmit that bleak atmosphere of Las Hurdes and, most importantly, to deliver profoundly his arguments. And those arguments are quite harsh: that the people of Las Hurdes are primitive ignorants prone to superstitions and inbreeding (an stereotype as old as Lope de Vega), and that the government does nothing to improve their condition. Pretty strong accusations in the middle of the political turmoil that was prevalent in Spain during the 30s (Civil War would soon begin in 1936). And the way Buñuel delivers it is quite powerful: Eli Lotar's cinematography captures the misery of Las Hurdes with real documentarian eye, and it is Buñuel's editing and narrative what makes those images transcend reality.

The bold decision of making "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" was not without its consequences: the film was banned in Spain since its release until Spanish Civil War began. Ramón Acín, the producer, was killed by fascists in 1936 because of his anarchist activities. Buñuel, like many Spaniard artists and intellectuals of his time, decided to move to America, escaping from the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Buñuel would not direct a film until 1947. After a brief season in the U.S., Buñuel traveled to Mexico, and it would be in Mexico where Buñuel's talent would bloom again. Visually strong, and highly inventive, "Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan" is a documentary film ahead of its time, and a movie that shows the growing talent of Luis Buñuel.


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