Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread (Luis Buñuel, 1933)

By John A. Riley


“The realism of a painting by Zurbaran or Ribera is nothing compared to reality itself.”


With his third film, Luis Buñuel set out to parody the vogue for exotic ethnographic travelogues while delivering bitterly satirical attacks on poverty and the supposed objectivity of ethnographic and anthropological observers. Buñuel read Maurice Legendre’s account of his experiences in Las Hurdes, Spain, and something about this fervent Catholic’s account of the remote, destitute region fired Buñuel’s creativity.

Even the circumstances of the film’s funding and production are bound up in contradiction: a Spanish communist party member accepting money from a lottery-winning anarchist. The film that follows is comprised of what Buñuel would eventually call, “passion, mystification, black humor, the insult, and the call of the abyss.” In other words, a series of non-sequiturs and outright provocations. Straightforward documentary was never something Buñuel had in mind, although the film’s voiceover, with its subtle ranking of the cinematic apparatus above painting, might have you believe otherwise.

Part painterly images and mythic symbolism, part clunky edits and wobbly camera movements, the film pairs the cruelness of the film crew’s method (clearly shooting a goat to get footage of it falling down a mountainside, making a point of reporting the death of a young girl the film crew had earlier been interacting with) with the poverty that the Hurdanos face, the narration describing it in aloof, vaguely patronising terms, as a determined nineteenth century missionary might have.

Buñuel’s film is contested by the Hurdanos (the subject of a 2000 documentary, Prisoners of Buñuel) who resent the perpetuation of stereotypes of their region. Bunuel, though, was using the idea of Las Hurdes as a stepping stone to talk about other things. Crucially, Buñuel doesn’t shift the savagery, cruelty and sheer human misery which were the themes of his two previous films; he situates this wretchedness right in the middle of contemporaneous Europe, within his own country of origin. Given the fascist “solution” to poverty and unrest that took hold in Germany in the year of the film’s production, and that would engulf Spain in civil war three years later, Buñuel’s stance of indifference to suffering begins to seem prescient indeed.

In his original ethnographic study, Legendre remarks that “If you ask the way to Las Hurdes in Pino, they will tell you that it lies farther on, and if you ask this question farther on, they will respond that you have gone too far, in such a way that no one wants to be Hurdano.” In the same way, Buñuel’s argument appears to be that we do not want to acknowledge that the suffering seen in the film is happening around us, we would rather displace this cruelty; to the third world, to a place where “savagery” is often dismissed as an unexplainable fact.