Reminiscent of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Black Bread” is the grim but gripping tale of a rural lad’s first exposure to evil in Spain’s post-Civil War years. Agusti Villaronga’s most mainstream film retains his trademark subversive edge, quickly evolving from rites-of-passage yarn into a complex, challenging item that is both dark to its heart and breathlessly watchable. Fest exposure seems probable, and while pic is unlikely to cross over to mainstream auds, the offshore arthouse market should find “Bread” to its taste.
Set in 1944, the film opens with its most visually startling scene, its brutality setting the tone for what follows. A hooded man kills another man, blinds the victim’s horse and then pushes the man, together with his son, horse and carriage, over a ravine. The event is witnessed by 11-year-old Andreu (Francesc Colomer), who rushes home to his mother, Florencia (Nora Navas, who won the San Sebastian actress prize), and father, Farriol (Roger Casamajor).
The issue of whodunit quickly becomes secondary. The village mayor (Sergi Lopez, playing a more nuanced fascist than he did in “Pan’s Labyrinth”) suspects Farriol, who has the wrong political connections, is responsible. Farriol escapes to France, while Andreu is sent by Florencia to live with his grandmother (Elisa Crehuet), in a house full of women; the men are all either dead or exiled.
Here he meets his cousin, the feral Nuria (Marina Comas), bitter and cynical before her time, having lost her fingers to a grenade. He also befriends a consumptive boy (Lazaro Mur) who lives in the monastery, and who imagines he has angels’ wings, yielding some rather over-insistent bird symbolism.
Debt owed to Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” present in the source novel by Emili Teixidor, even gives Andreu an overweight, Miss Havisham-like benefactress named Mrs. Manubens (Merce Aranega). While the women do their best to cope, the war has caused the men to regress to their most basic instincts: The local schoolteacher (Eduard Fernandez, brilliantly eliciting both compassion and repulsion) is an alcoholic who is sleeping with Nuria. Farriol, despite his repeated speeches to Andreu about maintaining ideals, is an ambiguous figure at best. It all adds up to a harrowing portrait of a war and a regime that have taken a toll on victors and vanquished alike, as well as their children.
As a depiction of rural poverty, pic is impressive: The darkly lit, richly textured interiors seem to be an extension of the beautifully lensed natural landscape, with a palette that switches from natural brown tones during the day to harsh blue hues at night. But the surrounding forests also conjure a more magical darkness that, as with “Labyrinth,” evokes the world of myth.
Several scenes, including a dream sequence, are shot through with a raw, unsettling power. But what really distinguishes the film stylistically is the urgency of the often handheld lensing, more redolent of a gritty urban drama than of a rural period piece. The visual hyperactivity reflects the emotionally numbed characters’ lack of control over their own lives as they fight to stay a step ahead of the next unforeseen event, buffeted from tragedy to tragedy by forces beyond their control. Even the closest relationship in the film, between Andreu and Farriol, is always troubled.
Perfs are uniformly fine from a Catalan cast whose biggest names, including Laia Marull as Pauleta, the deranged wife of the man murdered in the first scene, are relegated to the smaller roles. Villaronga’s script keeps the plot moving relentlessly forward while still finding time to raise the novel’s troubling questions about the decency of the human spirit. These questions mostly center on Andreu, and Colomer carries the emotional weight superbly, especially in a wonderfully understated final moment.