So many books, so little time… (Part 8)

Mi Último Suspiro  by  Luis Buñuel

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I found this one in a secondhand bookstore in Madrid about five years ago. I was walking from Plaza del Callao to Cuatro Caminos, about an hour’s walk, where I was staying with a friend. Somewhere along Calle Bravo Murillo I spotted a table overflowing with books on one of the little side streets and went in for a closer look. The bookstore was one of those hoarder’s wet dreams where you check your claustrophobia at the door and delicately maneuver your way in amongst the teetering mountains of musty books. The place was absolute chaos. I spent ages digging through the debris. When I finally made it to the cash register the owner pulled open a curtain behind him and motioned for me to enter. I ducked through a hole in the wall and found myself in another large room just as damp, dangerous, and disorganized as the first one. I nearly wept with joy.

I’ve walked down Bravo Murillo a couple of times since then and I haven’t been able to find that bookshop. I’m beginning to wonder if it ever existed at all…

Mi Último Suspiro (My Last Sigh) is the revolutionary Spanish filmmaker’s autobiography of sorts. It starts with his childhood in the village of Calanda, Teruel, where “la Edad Media se prolongó hasta la Primera Guerra Mundial” (“the Middle Ages lasted until the First World War”). At first, this statement made me laugh. Then, he explains himself further, saying he considers himself lucky to have grown up in the Middle Ages, a time that was: “Dolorosa en lo material. Exquisita en lo espiritual. Todo lo contrario de hoy.” (“Painful materially. Exquisite spiritually. The complete opposite of today.”)

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Buñuel relates the moment when, at nearly 30 years of age, he tells his mother he intends to dedicate himself to filmmaking as a career. She was extremely disappointed and almost cried. “Como si yo le hubiera dicho: ‘Mamá, quiero ser payaso.’” (“As if I had said to her, ‘Mom, I want to be a circus clown.’”)

Unfortunately, he doesn’t spend much time talking about his third film, Las Hurdes: Tierra sin Pan (Land without Bread), which was filmed in our neck of the woods. Buñuel decided to take the Surrealist approach to the art of documentary filmmaking for this project. The 27-minute film, which some say is the first example of a mockumentary, is about Las Hurdes, a mountainous area in northern Extremadura which has been compared to Appalachia in the United States. At the time, 1933, it was an extremely isolated region with a population living in dire poverty.

Land without Bread was co-financed by Buñuel’s friend Ramón Acín¹, an anarchist who taught music to workers in the evenings. Acín liked the idea for the film and told Buñuel that if he ever won the lottery he would help finance the project. A few months later Acín actually won the lottery and followed through on his promise.

The original version was silent and Buñuel narrated the earliest viewings himself with a microphone. The inimitable voice of Spanish actor Francisco Rabal was added later. The narrator describes, and frequently exaggerates, the human misery projected onto the screen using the tone of a bored traveller, a tone that suggests he couldn’t care less about the welfare of los hurdanos. In part, it was Buñuel’s way of making fun of travel documentaries about the Sahara that were popular at the time. Most viewers didn’t get the joke, especially the people living in the villages of Las Hurdes who, even today, hold a grudge against the filmmaker for making them look like uneducated savages.

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In one scene Buñuel had the crew cover an old donkey in honey, then knock over a couple of hives. He filmed the animal as it was stung to death by bees. In another scene a mountain goat is filmed slipping and falling off a cliff. It was actually shot with a gun. (You can see the puff of smoke as the weapon discharges off-screen.) The dead animal then violently tumbles down the side of the mountain. There are also scenes of dwarves, mentally handicapped people, and villagers suffering from various diseases, accompanied disturbingly by Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. The disinterested narrator nonchalantly explains that these ailments are mostly due to the widespread practice of incest among the local inhabitants.

Buñuel definitely stretched the truth in his film, but he had a good reason. He was trying to draw attention to the misery of rural Spain in the 1930s. And like a true Surrealist, he was trying to get a reaction out of polite, middle class, bourgeois society. He was saying, the world we have created is not set up properly. Where is the justice? Where is the empathy? This needs to be fixed.

The film was banned by the progressive government of the Second Spanish Republic for exploiting los hurdanos. It continued to be banned during the civil war and when Franco came to power in 1939, well, he certainly had no intention of lifting the ban.

Los hurdanos still get upset about the film. In 1999, documentary filmmaker Ramón Gieling returned to the area with the idea of screening Buñuel’s 70 year old film to the locals and discussing it with them. He received some death threats, but he continued on with his project, spending three weeks filming in the area. Gieling’s documentary, Los Prisioneros de Buñuel (Buñuel’s Prisoners), was the result. It’s a fascinating film and well worth a look.

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Buñuel wearing a bishop’s mitre

Lola and I have explored Las Hurdes by car on various occasions over the years. On one trip we ended up in the tiny, remote village of Riomalo de Arriba, current population: 14. The village isn’t far from Las Batuecas, where Buñuel stayed in a crumbling monastery during the filming of Tierra sin Pan. The narrow lanes of Riomalo aren’t much wider than a donkey so we left the car down by the Ladrillar river and made our way on foot. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Most of the houses were without doors or windows. Quite a few of them were empty shells, the weight of the black slate roofing tiles, typical in these parts, having caused the rotten wooden ceiling beams to collapse long ago. You could step inside and sift through the rubble, take a rusted out frying pan or a solitary waterlogged shoe as a sad souvenir, if you so desired.

We passed a couple of humble dwellings that showed signs of human habitation. A curtain in the window. A potted plant and a pair of muddy boots in the doorway. We climbed until we reached a little square which contained an ugly, whitewashed, cement church. There was an old man sitting on a bench surrounded by half a dozen cats. They were all dozing in the sun.

Lola struck up a conversation. She asked him if it was true that there were only fourteen people living in Riomalo. The old man corrected her. There were only six year-round residents still hanging on. The others only returned in summer for holidays and to maintain the old family residence. Lola translated this to me later. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. (Lola had some trouble understanding him, too.)

Getting back to the book: Buñuel also talks about his friend and co-conspirator, Salvador Dalí, who co-wrote his first film, the infamous Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) in 1929. Dalí outed Buñuel as a Communist and an atheist in his 1942 autobiography La Vida Secreta de Salvador Dalí. These were serious accusations. They caused Buñuel to resign from his job in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art.

Before leaving the city Buñuel met with Dalí one last time, at the Sherry Netherland Hotel, where Dalí was staying. Buñuel’s plan was to get revenge by shooting Dalí in the knee. (Buñuel was quite the gun enthusiast, and he had a collection of small firearms.) They drank some champagne, Buñuel called Dalí a pig, and he left without carrying out the shooting part of the plan.

The two men never repaired their friendship. They exchanged a few telegrams over the years, but Buñuel could never forgive Dalí for his exhibitionism², his egotism, or his support of Francoism. Nearly forty years later, Buñuel, in an interview, said that he would like to have one last glass of champagne with Dalí before he died. Dalí read the interview and responded, “A mí también, pero no bebo.” (“Me too, but I don’t drink.”)

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Buñuel and Dalí, 1929

Other interesting tidbits from the book: Woody Allen offered Buñuel $30,000 to play himself in Annie Hall. He turned down the part, which was then offered to Marshall McLuhan. (Remember the famous scene where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are waiting in line at the movies?) And last but not least, we learn that Buñuel played the banjo. That made me very happy.

A few different versions of Las Hurdes: Tierra sin Pan with Spanish, French, and English subtitles and voice-overs, are on YouTube. Ramón Gieling’s documentary, Buñuel’s Prisoners, is also currently on YouTube with English subtitles.

—–

1: In 1936, when the civil war started, an armed group of right wing extremists came looking for Acín at his home in Huesca. He escaped, but they kidnapped his girlfriend and said they would kill her if he didn’t give himself up. Acín gave himself up the next day. They killed him and his girlfriend.

2: Buñuel tells a story about Dalí and his wife, Gala, attending a fancy costume ball in New York in the early thirties. Gala was dressed in children’s clothing and her face was covered in fake blood. Their fellow partygoers were curious as to what she was supposed to be. Then Dalí proudly announced, much to the horror of everyone present, that Gala was dressed as the Lindbergh baby. Classy couple.

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