Buñuel’s Prisoners received its world premiere at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam just a few weeks ahead of the centennial celebration of Luis Buñuel’s birthday in February. Although there is nothing wrong with the timing, it is regrettable that Buñuel himself hardly surfaces in Gieling’s film.
Buñuel’s Prisoners is primarily a film about a film: Buñuel’s Las Hurdes, tierra sin pan (Land Without Bread), shot back in 1932. In this very controversial documentary – or “mockumentary” as some will have it – Buñuel portrayed the mountainous Las Hurdes of western Spain as an inbred, diseased and poverty-ridden area waging a ‘desperate fight against the hostile forces of nature’. Not a pretty picture.
Las Hurdes – financed by anarchists! – was immediately banned in Republican Spain, and the local inhabitants weren’t so happy with the result either: Buñuel remains an unpopular figure in the province – even today, more than 17 years after his death.
This fact is most thoroughly documented by Ramon Gieling, who visited Las Hurdes last summer. Here the Dutch director set up screenings of the infamous film in various village squares and also did a score of interviews with ordinary Hurdanos, who seem only too happy to rid themselves of the Buñuel curse.
Though it is quite interesting at points, Gieling regrettably seems content to scratch the surface. When the villagers complain about fabricated scenes in the original film they are certainly right. Buñuel consciously did this on several occasions. When a goat falls to its ‘natural’ death you see smoke from a gunshot in the frame and the famous ‘dead’ baby still moves its chest! This is realism, but of a heightened – and at times tendentious and manufactured – nature (with some clear references to Buñuel’s first two films, the surrealistic masterpieces Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or).
To treat Buñuel’s angry cry against the cruelty of creation – with Brahms’ romantic Fourth Symphony as the contrapuntal underscore(!) – as a largely faked piece of Cinéma Vérité is an unworthy simplification. Buñuel deserves better.
NB: It is interesting to note that the living hell on earth as portrayed by Buñuel also exists in travel guides. Just read this excerpt from The Cadogan Guide to Spain, which describes the inhabitants of Las Hurdes in not so distant times: ‘….. Brute savages running about naked, devoid of religion, eating raw chestnuts, and practising everything from polygamy to cannibalism’.