Based on a novel by Catalan novelist Emili Teixidor, Black Bread is a dark and unsettling film from the get-go. Although its director, Agustí Villaronga, is from Majorca, the film is set in the contentious political climate of rural Catalonia following the Spanish Civil War.
Even though the war is over, it still haunts the landscape and rages in the minds of survivors. When the main character, a young boy named Andreu, discovers the bodies of the republican Dionís and his son in the woods, Andreu’s mother Florència tells him: “The woods are cursed since the war.” Andreu’s father Farriol, himself a communist and republican, is a prime suspect in the deaths; the mayor, a staunch falangist, tells Farriol that “There are still a lot of reds to purge. You don’t want to end up like Dionís.”
Florència, outraged by the mayor’s bullishness, excoriates him: “Black bread and red sugar, with the ration book and waiting hours in line! That’s all you’ve given us. Bread with no soul or virtue; dead, like all of you, because of this goddamn war that killed us all.” To escape the target on his back, Farriol goes into hiding, and Florència sends Andreu to his grandmother’s farm, owned by a wealthy family, the Manubens. Andreu’s grandmother, Àvia, inhabits a world full of ghosts and monsters, just as Andreu himself does. Also living in the farmhouse are two of Andreu’s aunts, as well as his cousins Núria and Quirze.
The film highlights the corruption of postwar Spain, but also the widespread support of nationalist and falangist ideology among influential sectors of the population. Andreu’s teacher, Mr. Madern, in addition to being both an alcoholic and a pedophile, openly espouses extreme nationalist ideas to his students: “The defeated have no right to even a small footnote in the great book of history, because history is always written by winners. But I am always in favor of victors because they’re more worthy,” he explains to the class, “because they’ve known how to win. And only those who know how to win can win. Like the rich are more worthy than the poor.”
“Portrait of a Bird-Killer”
Although the motif of bread, unsurprisingly, figures prominently in the film, birds occupy an even more central thematic role. Beyond their shared politics, Farriol and Dionís shared an obsession with birds. Prior to going into hiding, Farriol tends to the birds in his aviary with intense devotion. To Andreu, he compares himself to a restless chaffinch, and says that “birds are meant to be free and fly. Like angels, they have no borders. We can cage them, but can’t change the way they are.” Núria, strange as always, remarks to Andreu: “I’d like to set a bird on fire one day. A ball of fire flying in the air, squawking, until it falls to the ground. A shower of ashes is all that would be left of it.”
Shortly after going to live with his grandmother, Andreu befriends a strange, consumptive boy who runs naked through the woods and believes he has wings. The boy remarks: “You fly too low, Andreu. So low it seems like you’re just walking. Fly high and don’t let anyone catch you.” Quirze tells Andreu that consumptives are “infected by vice. They look like angels but I bet take up bed-hopping at night.”
Much of the film’s plot revolves around a mysterious figure named Pitorliua, whose monstrous, half-bird/half-man ghost is said to haunt the Baumes caves outside of town. As Andreu learns more about the circumstances surrounding Pitorliua’s death, and concurrently learns the truth about his parents, he takes out his rage in the only way he can: on his father’s birds.
The film is terrifying, it is gloomy (to say the least), but above all, it is spellbinding. It’s one of those rare films for which the ending is truly unforeseen. If you don’t want to take my word for it, just check out its accolades: it basically swept the Goya and the Gaudí Awards in 2011.
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