“Those graceless mountains fascinated me, as did the poverty and the intelligence of their inhabitants. I was amazed at their fierce attachment to this sterile country, this ’breadless’ earth. In fact, fresh bread was just about unheard of, except when someone brought back a dried loaf from Andalusia,” says Luis Buñuel in The Last Sigh. The budget for his first and only documentary, Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread), ran out on the last day of the shoot. Marañon, a scholar and president of the governing council of Las Hurdes, did not grant the necessary authorization for distributing the film. “Why do you want to show everyone all those ugly things? It’s not that bad, you know. I’ve seen carts filled with wheat in Las Hurdes. Why don’t you show something nice, like folk dances,” said Marañon. Buñuel, of course, was less concerned with such “trite expressions of misplaced nationalism” than he was with exposing the squalor of a people ignored by a careless pre-Franco regime. Similarities to Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) are unavoidable: the sublime imagery, the methodical camera crawls and, most notably, its sardonic voiceover. With Las Hurdes, Buñuel was once more threatened by the Falange, an extreme nationalist political group founded by J. Primo de Rivera in 1933 and abolished in 1975 after Franco’s death. Today, Las Hurdes is remembered less for its politicized images than it is for Buñuel parodic manipulation of documentary style.
Buñuel’s ravenous study of human geography suggests that a land without bread is a land without God. If bread, like manna, is the food of the Lord, it is impossible to break bread in Las Hurdes. A prime source of nourishment for any race of people, bread is scarce in Las Hurdes because of the topography of the land. As the film’s opening title card suggests, “the Hurdanos were unknown, even in Spain, until a road was built for the first time in 1922. Nowhere does man need to wage a more desperate fight against the hostile forces of nature.” Las Hurdes is a difficult work because, as Pauline Kael said in her collection of film criticism Going Steady, “Buñuel is an outraged lover of man, a disenchanted idealist; he makes comedy of his own disgust.” What with the skulls that preside over town entranceways, the gaudy trinkets worn by children and the town’s savage wedding ceremonies, it’s no wonder Buñuel sees the Hurdanos as a medieval people. The director, though, is not disgusted by the Hurdanos as much as he is outraged by the irrational nature of their plight. Abel Jacquin’s sublime narration questions the need for geometry in the classroom (let alone a hanging portrait of a gaudy fairy-tale princess) when the town’s “barefooted urchins” are in such dire need of food.
If the codes of documentary filmmaking deploy factual evidence to indicate the authentic, Buñuel’s political statement is rendered via his vilification of this objective approach. “Goat meat is eaten only when this happens,” says Jacquin as a mountain goat falls to its death from a mountaintop. (Judging from the multiple angles Buñuel employs, it’s assumed that his crew purposefully slaughtered several goats for the sequence.) The spectator is forced to reject the dominant ethos and question not only the responsibility of the documentary filmmaker but the ironic rhetoric and validity of the documentary image. For the sake of his political commentary, Buñuel has rendered a bitter reality via a false representation of that very reality. A girl lies by the side of the road, sick and uncared for. One of Buñuel’s crewmembers examines the girl’s diseased throat before Jacquin declares that she would die two days later. A mule is eaten alive by a swarm of bees and a baby girl is carried across a river (the image eerily reminiscent of bibilical representations of a baby Moses making his way down the Nile River) to her final resting place. Death breaks the monotony of Hurdano life and by juxtaposing images of this brutal existence with Jacquin’s almost disinterested commentary, Las Hurdes becomes a frightening call to arms, a fabulous open text that resists simple readings and questions humanity’s notion of progress.