Las Hurdes (more commonly known as Land Without Bread [Tierra Sin Pan]) (Spain, 1933) seems, on its face, to be an almost pointlessly dire travelogue documenting the miserable living conditions of the people of the Las Hurdes mountain range, and the Hurdano valleys within, in the Spanish province of Extremadura (aptly named). It’s almost the antithesis of what you might expect from the canny, darkly humorous Surrealist that produced Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. But, while the film is a presentation of very real aspects of the people and culture, Buñuel has shaped his film in very politically persuasive ways to expose the very un-Christian neglect to which the ostensibly ‘Christian’ church and government has culpably subjected these people, and this region.
Buñuel’s commitment to the surrealist aesthetic was unwavering, but he felt that the Surrealist movement in Paris had given up on the idea of constructively transforming society through their art, unlike other revolutionary art movements in Russia, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in France. He was also distressed that André Breton, Louis Aragon and the others were becoming dismissively elitist snobs, concerned only with their own work for its own sake. Coupled with the censorship of his screenings of L’Age D’Or, featuring his depiction of Jesus as a main character in a Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days Of Sodom, Buñuel left France to pursue other avenues of creative work.
Buñuel’s fellow participants in the making of this film were Spanish anarchist acquaintances, and they were anxious to use their ‘documentary’ as a damning statement against the incumbent King Alfonso
XIII, whom the filmmakers knew was acutely aware of the levels of poverty and degradation that the Hurdanos were subject to, yet did little more than pay lip service to any kind of real reform or relief. They were careful to keep the film grounded in actual reality, but also took opportunities to accentuate the squalor within the structure of the film.
Travelogue-style, we first visit the village of La Alberca, a small, clean, animated town just outside of the mountain range, where an annual feast is being celebrated. One of the features of the day is young bachelors of the town riding on horseback through the city streets, ripping the heads off of rope-suspended birds as they ride past. Buñuel sets a tone here very early, not only depicting the casual cruelty that the men are capable of, but the ease with which these acts are institutionalized, and celebrated, by the populace.
Then we journey further in, to the valley village of Las Batuecas, almost entirely abandoned at the time save for a crumbling monastery and its sole inhabitant, a friar. “Today, adders and lizards are the friar’s only companions,” states the narrator. It’s a ghost town, and it probably should be – the whole region is characterized by brutal summers and almost constant drought. “Within the walls are the ruins of 18 chapels.” The question isn’t why has the church abandoned this village; the question is why did they build here in the first place?
If settling in Las Batuecas seems like a bad idea, the populations of the valley villages of Aceitunilla, Martilandrán and Fragosa are almost outrightly masochistic; the desolation and poverty smack you in the face. What houses exist are stone shacks; a tiny spring winds its way through the town, used for laundry, washing and drinking water for both people and the pigs that a few lucky inhabitants own. Otherwise the only foods are beans and potatoes. (All of those beheaded game birds in La Alberca take on new importance in hindsight). Honey is one of the only marketable ‘crops,’ but the hives must be transported seasonally, and donkeys are routinely stung to death. Mosquitoes, and the ‘swamp fever’ thereof, are a big problem, as well as inbreeding within the isolated families. When a small child in the village dies from deprivation or disease, a frequent occurrence, “…the women of the village all hasten to the bereaved home,” almost all carrying small children themselves.
The film is less than 28 minutes long, but even at that brief length, we often ask ourselves, “is he kidding us?” A friend of mine once heard the morosely dirgelike song ‘God Damn The Sun’ by the Swans, and found it hilarious – they couldn’t possibly have meant this seriously, he believed; it had to be satire. Buñuel knows exactly what he meant – accentuating the absurdity doesn’t render any of this untrue, but the absurdity also compels us towards empathy in a way that another more earnest and objective narrative might not. Buñuel understood that any other conventional approach would enable us to distance ourselves further from what we’re seeing. We’re told that the Hurdano have no chimneys in their homes, inflicting smoke damage upon themselves when they cook. Neanderthals figured out the concept of chimneys – these people somehow didn’t? People die of snakebites not because the bites are fatal, but because their treatment of the bites invariably leads to infection. A long explanation of the uses of strawberry tree leaves explains that the leaves are used for personal bedding until they rot; then they’re used as fertilizer.
Buñuel’s real point, of course, is that if even one government official, or even one clergy member, took a day or so to visit, at negligible expense, and shared ideas like “this is how chimneys work,” “this is how you boil water for sanitation,” “here’s what composting does,” many of these problems would disappear. But for all of their political good intentions, all of their Christian charity, they just couldn’t be bothered. He’s not making a statement about the natural, survival-of-the-fittest unfairness of existence – he’s making a statement about the absurdity, the surreality, of institutionalized neglect.
So what’s it like there today? It seems the Spanish government hasn’t so much improved things as they’ve figured out how to make it all tourism-friendly. “Pay special attention to the farmsteads: houses made from flat slabs of slate, with thatched roofs.” How quaint! “As far as fauna is concerned, Las Hurdes is a region that serves as shelter for protected species such as wild cats, otters and black storks. You can also see other animals such as boars and mountain goats here.” And be sure to pick up a jar of Las Hurdes honey!
The ideal way to see this film, other than in a theater, on the big screen, is to get hold of the Kino Video that features both Land Without Bread and Un Chien Andalou. It’s also on YouTube.