Comments on Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan
by Doug Spurling

My purpose here is to examine a two-shot sequence from Luis Bunuel's 1932 film Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan in terms of its Surrealist elements. I will assemble a brief definition of Surrealism, describe the segment in detail, show how the segment works in the context of the film as a whole, and apply the definition to the segment.

Bunuel's relationship with the Surrealists evolved over time; to some extent this was the result of changes, or Bunuel's perception of changes, in the movement and its members. He states in My Last Sigh that "More than anything else, surrealism was a kind of call heard by certain people...who, unknown to one another, were already practicing instinctive forms of irrational expression" (105). Later he develops this notion, moving beyond an art-historical context to assert that the primary goal of the Surrealists was "not to establish a glorious place for themselves in the annals of art and literature, but to change the world, to transform life itself" (123). Irrationalism, in the form of acts that would elicit "scandal," was seen as a tool in the pursuit of social change: "Scandal was a potent agent, capable of exposing such crimes as the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny--in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed" (107).

The segment which I've chosen falls at the end of the scene that examines the interior of the Hurdano school. In the first shot, a child in medium-closeup stands before a blackboard and writes the symbols "Respetad los tienes ajenos," which in Spanish mean "respect the property of others" in the imperative mood. The child's head faces away from the camera and, with the very tops of his shoulders, occupies the lower two-thirds of middle screen left; his arm extends, slightly bent at the elbow, more or less vertically up center screen. The smooth, reflective surface of the blackboard supplies the entire background, and the scene is brightly lit. In the second shot, we look down on the heads and upper torsi of two children, again in medium-closeup, as they sit next to one another behind a large desk. They face us nearly head-on; through the conventions of the narrator system we infer that they are watching the first child writing. After a long moment, they suddenly and in unison look down and begin writing. Over heavy, slow music, the narrator intones: "But even these children are taught the Golden Rule."

The segment occupies what I see as a decisive moment in a work that begins by stating its problem--the scandalous backwardness of the Hurdanos--and its project: an open call to save the Hurdanos from the "hostile forces of nature." The film consists of a multistage geography lesson that moves from the general (Europe) to the particular: the "human geography" of Las Hurdes. After stopovers in La Alberca, where we witness the metaphorical reenactment of the Roman Catholic liturgical ritual, and Las Batuecas, where we see the crumbling fringes of the Roman church against a backdrop of rock which iconographically refers back to the bishops-rocks scene in L'Age d'or, we finally descend into the valleys of Las Hurdes. La Alberca serves as the yardstick in a comparison which posits Las Hurdes as a space of lack or deficiency with respect to domestic animals, water use practices, music, food (specifically bread), clothes, private property, personal and public hygeine, agriculture, child rearing, sexual discipline, and genetics. Parity with the rest of Spain is achieved only in education, which, in the building of the school, has been the subject of "recent" outside intervention. The school environment is examined at length and the children are seen reading and, in the two shots described above which end the scene, writing. The film ends with death and a collective appeal to the mother of God.

Situating this work as a Surrealist text has been awkward for many critics. For example, Francisco Aranda locates the surreal chiefly in the film's "enumeration of facts, each one more absurd and at the same time more severe and precise." No one seems to have commented on the fact that there are actually two disparate registers operating within the movie: one corresponding to the Europe, La Alberca, and Las Batuecas sections in which the narrator's voice-over agrees reliably with the content of the images according to the established conventions of the narrator system; and a second, corresponding to the Las Hurdes section, in which the narrator frequently contradicts himself and in which the image and the voice-over often seem to be at odds. On each side of this divide, there occurs one test case in which, according to film convention, we infer that the narrator is providing a verbal translation of a written text which is simultaneously visible in the image. The first takes place in La Alberca and involves the inscription on the front of the church; here the voice and the image are in agreement.

The second case occurs in the next-to-last shot of the school scene, which is the first of the two shots in my segment. Here the voice utters words which do not correspond to the text written on the blackboard. Shortly before this, the camera interrogates the painted image of a woman of obvious bourgeois standing, while the narrator asks: "And what is this pretty lady doing here?" Since we're not seeing a "pretty lady" at all, but rather an image of an image, this shot (and the Respetad los tienes shot which follows it) becomes the sound-film analog of Magritte's This is not a Pipe, reflexively jarring us out of our relationship with the narrator and causing us to question the documentary value of the work. The school takes on a second significance as the site at which the future Hurdanos are being trained not in the irrational thought valued by the Surrealists, but in the hierarchical, Cartesian social organization of modern Europe. For the Surrealists, this is perhaps the root disease of humanity; it is also the source of the Imperial Rome depicted in L'Age d'or. Rather than a space of deficiency, then, the Sisyphean region of Las Hurdes can be seen as corresponding to the original, uncorrupted (although perhaps less than perfect) ground state of humanity depicted at the beginning of L'Age d'or. In this scheme the two films form a kind of diptych in which Bunuel offers two options for human existence, neither of which is ideal. Perhaps this is what he means when, speaking of Las Hurdes, he claims that to be human is "tragic."

History buttresses the idea that the Surrealist scandal at the center of Las Hurdes is not the backwardness of the Hurdanos. For five hundred years the region had been a refuge for those persecuted for political or religious reasons. Las Hurdes acquired a reputation as the haunt of spirits, which the monastery at Las Batuecas was founded to exorcise. The drive to incorporate Las Hurdes into the economic, political, and social life of Europe had begun under the Spanish monarchy, with the building of a road (emblematic of Rome) in 1922. To the extent that Bunuel cultivated a Surrealist antipathy toward the church, the monarchy, and the rationalism that tied them together, the true scandal of Las Hurdes is a documentary that questions notions of progress and, by speaking in two voices, confounds a unified reading.

UC Berkeley - Film 151, Spring 1998
Copyright (C) 1998 Doug Spurling

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