Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bunuel’s Depiction of Hell on Earth: Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread)

las hurdes

This 1933 documentary by Luis Bunuel is strange, but not unwatchable. Filmed in a poor region of Spain known as Las Hurdes Altas, this documentary presents the dire conditions faced by the region’s inhabitants through a surrealist lens. Hence, why I found this movie disturbingly strange at times. I just don’t know how one can effectively use surrealism to document the true hardships of a people without violating the documentarian’s unspoken code of neutrality—perhaps Michal Moore is a fan of Bunuel?

The English title of this film is Land Without Bread hurdesbecause bread was nowhere to be found in Las Hurdes—it had to be brought in as a luxury item. Tucked away in a mountainous region, Las Hurdes Altas has poor soil that yields very few crops. The one foodstuff they have an abundance of is honey, and even this isn’t very good—unless, of course, you want to smear a sickly jackass with it and watch bees swarm.

Like in most Bunuel films, the Catholic Church is portrayed as decadent and unmoved by the plight of the poor. Using one of his favorite cinematic tools, juxtaposition, Bunuel goes from depicting malnourished, impoverished people to showcasing the lushness of an abandoned convent.

lasAs a completely isolated region, Las Hurdes Altas suffers from not only bodily starvation but intellectual starvation as well. There are no arts to speak of, and the people practice inbreeding, which in turn contributes to a number of mentally challenged and handicapped people. As I watched Bunuel’s portrayal of these people, I kept asking myself if he could find them why hadn’t the 20th century somehow nudged itself into this horrible place? I suppose that was Bunuel’s point: no one cared if they lived in almost medieval conditions.

I often find it difficult to believe that Bunuel came from a wealthy background. He has an almost searing hatred of everything bourgeois and traditional. In addition, his depiction of his homeland (Spain) is often extremely vitriolic. This, no doubt, contributed to his expatriation under Franco.

Under a half an hour long, Las Hurdes is a disturbing look at a people and region that time forgot. Through shocking images, such as decapitated chickens and countless shots of filth and disease, Bunuel forces his viewer to see, in his words, “hell on earth”.


  1. Kim, I have not seen this Bunuel film and am intrigued by the thought of a "surrealistic documentary." Like you, Bunuel's approach seems incompatible with the genre. Certainly, it sounds like a far cry from VIRIDIANA and THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE...and yet, your analysis of LAS HURDES identifies themes that dominate his later, more mainstream fiction works. Fascinating and very well-done review, Kim.

  2. Kim, a most interesting choice for a post. I vividly recall seeing this in college. What struck me most was the amazingly weird juxtapositions of images you pointed out and also of narration and image. I remember especially a scene where the narrator (whose tone is almost comically somber) says how important the mules are to these people and then we see an image of a mule plunging off a cliff. It's hard to believe the camera just happened to be running when an animal lost its footing and fell to its death. Was it a real animal? Was it sacrificed just for sensationalistic footage? Bunuel seems to playing with the narrative conventions of film (as he often did in his fictional movies) and with audience expectations--almost as if he's taunting the viewers for sitting comfortably watching this at a remove and not really having to experience any of it. The whole tragedy of these impoverished people seems to be wrapped in Bunuel's own comically absurd vision of a mad, cruel, and mystifying universe. And yet their suffering is undeniably real. I can't think of anyone else who could have packed so much--and so much of it disturbingly contradictory--into such a short film.

    I ran across an interesting term awhile back, "theodicy," a word first used by Leibniz to indicate that the existence of God and evil/suffering in the universe are not incompatible. (It's the idea Voltaire ridiculed in "Candide.") In the anticlericalism of his work Bunuel seemed to wage a lifelong battle against the complacency of this concept, and this film seems a great example of his attitude.

  3. Kim, the word "provocative" sprang to mind as I read your fascinating review of Bunuel's work. What did Bunuel really hope to accomplish with this glimpse into impoverishment? R. D.'s observation about the mule's death causes one to truly ponder. Excellent review and discussion about "Las Hurdes."

  4. I can't help but wonder if Bunuel's well-to-do background is the very thing that inspired him to this kind of work and to the hatred for his own class. He must have been a man with a conscience, able to see beyond his own comfortable life to the sufferings of others. Spain in 1933 was a pretty dismal place for everyone except the rich. All the political upheaveals, abdications, everything aiming toward the Spanish Civil War....these poor people would have been completely ignored and forgotten by those in power. And isn't that universally true anyway?
    I would like to see this, and others of his works. Your article and the very thoughtful comments have intrigued me.

  5. Buñuel's work is a little hard to digest, but I find much of it utterly mesmerizing. It's frighteningly easy to be an experimental or avant- garde filmmaker, but it takes one of undeniable talent to make such films worthy of repeated viewing. Thanks, Kim, for thorough coverage of this film. It's a good read and has clearly inspired an intelligent discussion.

  6. R.D., the mule scene seems staged to me as well. Many people have this view, I believe. You are right on about the comical tone of the narrator's voice.

    Becky, you make some good points about Bunuel's background. I've always thought he wasn't take up the plight of the poor in his film, but rather poking fun at the upper classes for taking themselves so seriously.

    Thanks to all who commented.