Luis Bunuel’s 1933 Land Without Bread, a documentary portrait of a remote region of western Spain, was revelatory as a record of the unsuspected poverty and suffering that existed in Spain at the time, controversial in the ways Bunuel manipulated reality to achieve his intended effects, and politically sensitive: It was banned first by Franco and then again in France following its 1937 release there. The legacy of its perhaps exaggerated portrait of rural Spain is felt to this day by the people who live in the region it depicts.
But it’s also endlessly fascinating, and Salvador Simo’s animated feature, telling the story of the shooting of Bunuel’s pioneering weirdo masterpiece, does ample justice to its subject. Part homage to the work and part revision of its status, Bunuel is above all a good story elegantly told, transcending its obviously niche appeal and showing that Spanish animation, following last year’s multiple award-winning Another Day of Life, is looking healthy.
A captivating labor of love.
Broadly speaking, the movie follows the historical events. Finding it hard to raise funds for a third film following his hard-to-stomach surrealist masterpieces Un chien andalou and L’age d’or, Bunuel (voiced by Jorge Uson) falls lucky when his friend, the anarchist painter Ramon Acin (Fernando Ramos), buys a lottery ticket and promises that if he wins, they will shoot a documentary in Las Hurdes, an impoverished area in Extremadura that was the subject of the Mauricio Legendre book of “human geography” given to Bunuel by French photographer Eli Lotar (Cyril Corral).
Surreally, Acin wins the lottery. He, Bunuel, Lotar and journo Pierre Unik (voiced by Luis Enrique de Tomas) head off in a flash car that the impulsive Bunuel has bought, evaporating 25 percent of the budget right away. No sooner have they arrived at the first village than they witness the ritual in which women about to be married ride down the central street on horses, tearing the heads off live chickens hanging from a rope. (This cruelty was edited out of early versions of Bread, a film whose lack of political correctness was breathtaking, even for the time.)
To wonderful effect, the animation regularly segues into clear black-and-white footage from Bunuel’s doc, with the film offering possible contexts for Bread’s many striking moments. (Bunuel fans will revel in the chance to see them on a big screen.) Some of them show, as has long been accepted, that Bunuel manipulated reality in a way we’ve now become hardened to, often in pursuit of a particular effect. The awful scene, for example, featuring a goat tumbling to its death from a cliff was in fact provoked by a shot from Bunuel’s gun. Other long-held doubts, such as whether a dead child on the street is actually dead or merely sleeping, pass by unquestioned, and indeed are used by the script to indicate a final, historically implausible softening of Bunuel’s cynical attitude.
The contrast between Bunuel’s shaping of the truth (he sees Bread as a heightened attack on Francoist policy) and Acin’s belief that it should be recorded without frills form the dramatic backbone, as, with Bunuel’s behavior growing ever wilder and more provocative, the two friends become estranged. Perhaps Bunuel’s most touching moments, and there are several, come after the credits, in regard to the tragic real-life fate of Acin. They are aided by the lilting crescendos of Arturo Cardelus’ piano-based score, which, delightful though it is (it took best score at the recent Malaga festival), tends towards the lachrymose.
Regular flashbacks to Bunuel´s childhood evoke the sources of his art: a bloodstain on a drum skin from his childhood in Calanda, lots of yellow butterflies and his authoritarian father. Often these are revealed through the disturbing, surreal dreams that torment the filmmaker — birds flying out of the stomach of a giraffe, for example. The dreams are Bunuel’s way of shaking free of the stifling influence of Dali.
The animation is all about simplicity and clear lines, striving not for look-at-me sophistication but for the clarity that will allow the story to come through. There is indeed an over-stylized woodenness about the faces. But where the visuals really do bring it home is in their attention to lighting. Gold pours almost palpably from the immense skies onto the earth beneath, as in one memorable image of Bunuel standing alone in a field of windswept corn.
Production companies: Sygnatia, The Glow, Submarine, Hampa Studio
Cast: Jorge Uson, Fernando Ramos, Pierre Unik, Enrique De Tomas, Cyril Corral, Rachel Lascar
Director: Salvador Simo
Screenwriters Eligio Montero, Salvador Simo, based on the graphic novel by Fermin Solis
Producers: Manuel Cristobal, Jose Maria Fernandez de Vega, Bruno Felix, Fenme
Wolting, Alex Cervantes
Director of photography: Jose Manuel Pinero
Art director: Jose Luis Agreda
Editor: Jose Manuel Jiménez
Composer: Arturo Cardelus