You don’t get the warm fuzzies from a Luis Buñuel movie. The most famous moment from his first film — Un Chien andalou, co-directed with Salvador Dalí — is a woman getting her eye slashed with a straight razor. While on closer inspection the gutted eye is from a dead donkey, the image still has the power to shock 85 years later. Though the movie was a collaboration, you can discern Buñuel’s vision in this early work — shots of ants coming out of bodily orifices is pure Dalí; the caustic satire against the clergy is pure Buñuel. Dalí’s images are strange and beautiful. Buñuel’s are subversive.
Though Dalí and Buñuel worked together again on the scorchingly anti-Catholic L’Age d’or, their collaboration fell apart in pre-production. Dalí just wanted to tweak those in power. Buñuel, a committed leftist, wanted to undermine the whole bourgeoisie.
Land Without Bread (Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan) is Buñuel’s first movie without Dalí. Though lacking many of the overt surrealist flourishes of his earlier movies – no ocular mutilation here – this 1933 film is much more unsettling. Ostensibly a documentary about the Las Hurdes region located in a remote corner of Spain, the film is in fact a lacerating parody of travel documentaries. Novelist Graham Greene, in a review of the movie for Night and Day magazine, called it “an honest and hideous picture.” You can watch it above.
Las Hurdes is poor but not as comically awful as Buñuel depicts it. He paints the picture of unleavened wretchedness. Disease, deprivation and grinding despair are in just about every frame of the movie. And if the images weren’t miserable enough, Buñuel had no problem with creating a little of his own misery. In one notorious scene, a donkey is stung to death by a swarm of angry bees. Buñuel accomplished this by having the doomed beast slathered with honey and placed next to a couple of downed hives. Another scene sought to illustrate that the mountain passes in Las Hurdes were treacherous by showing a mountain goat tumbling off a craggy slope to certain death. Only the goat wasn’t clumsy, it was wounded. If you look closely at the lower right of the frame in that scene, you can see a puff of smoke from a crewmember’s gun. Buñuel, obviously, was not a member of PETA.
He juxtaposes these grim images with a monotone voice over that heaps disdain and condescension onto its subject. Yet the narration is so heightened, so preposterous, so cruel that you find yourself questioning its veracity. Below is a particularly infamous passage of the movie’s narration.
Dwarfs and morons are very common in the upper Hurdanos mountains. Their families employ them as goat herders if they’re not too dangerous. The terrible impoverishment of this race is due to the lack of hygiene, under nourishment and constant intermarriage. The smallest one of these creatures is 28 years old. Words cannot express the horror of their mirthless grins as they play a sort of hide and go seek.
All this places the viewer into a very uncomfortable position. Buñuel’s portrayal of the locals makes them seem so alien that empathy is all but impossible. All that you are left with is, aside from revulsion, an abstracted form of pity. It’s not all that different from the Oh Dearism you get from watching a news report on a particularly blighted corner of the Third World. The difference is that Buñuel, unlike the news, makes you acutely, uncomfortably aware of your privileged position in relation to the movie’s subject.
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.