Dutch documaker Ramon Gieling returns to Las Hurdas, the impoverished area in western Spain made sadly famous by Luis Bunuel’s 1932 film “Land Without Bread,” to screen the film for the town’s inhabitants and record their impressions. Briefly, most of them are still mad as hornets at what they feel was a biased, untruthful smear job. While pic’s premise has good curiosity value for film buffs, they may laugh at its naivete in depicting Bunuel as a simple exaggerator of the truth in the service of discrediting Franco and his regime.
The fact that “Land Without Bread” followed Bunuel’s two early surrealist masterpieces “Un Chien Andalou” and “L’Age d’Or” is never connected with his possible intentions in his “documentary” about Las Hurdas. Film history classes present the film as an example of high irony, a kind of docu-spoof that reveals its manipulations, all overlaid with outrageous commentary.
Unaware of, or unconvinced by, this reading, current pic seems sincerely sorry for the “black legend” Bunuel started and tries to right his wrong by being as “objective” as possible. The Spanish director is nevertheless an object of the filmmakers’ veneration, as seen in the bust that they present to the town’s underwhelmed mayor.
To its credit, “Bunuel’s Prisoners” is pleasantly shot with atmospheric camerawork and a thoughtful musical score composed by Micha Molthoff. Though it sometimes gets sidetracked into unrelated asides about the director’s private life and how teenagers spend their time in Las Hurdas, it has a strong buildup to the long-awaited film screening. An interesting subtext is the division of modern townsfolk into pro- and anti-Franco factions, which seems to have a big effect on their memory of childhood hardship. One elderly lady says she could tell even worse stories about life in 1932 and its poverty, disease and starvation.