Black Bread begins with a familiar scene: a man leads his horse and cart through a darkened wood, glancing around with unease at the various forest sounds which break the tense silence. A fairy-tale quality hangs over the scene, the images framed in wide angles and brought to life with rich autumnal hues; perhaps this will be a fantasy parable. When an assailant attacks the traveller, binds him in the cart, and leads the now-blindfolded horse to the cliff’s edge, brutally smashing it in the face with a sledge hammer, our stomachs concomitantly fold alongside the illusion that this will be anything but sickeningly real. It is the first clue to us that we are not in for the easiest of rides; many of the images that will come to us will be disturbing, even distressing.
Set in the years following the Spanish civil war, the film portrays the lingering dissent and tarnished political atmosphere of a nation divided. Andreu—the young boy who discovers the wreckage and is caught up in the post-civil war world of deceit that grips his small village as he attempts to discover the truth behind the “accident”—is sent to live with his grandmother, aunt, and cousins when his father—having fought for the losing side along with the murdered man—is forced to flee in fear of his own life. Andreu’s journey to discover what happened to the cart and its riders takes him into the darkness within his village, his family, and even himself.
It seems to me that there is a recurrent idea in modern Spanish-language cinema: to explore the issues of the civil war through the eyes of a child. Predating Black Bread, there are a number of films such as Butterfly’s Tongue and Pan’s Labyrinth which use the same concept. Examining the war through young eyes contextualises it, reducing it to its most fundamental perceptible elements and providing a fascinating perspective on (in the case of the former) the senselessness of condemning people by ideology alone and (the latter) the monstrousness of war and the frivolity of conflict. In a way, Black Bread achieves both of these things, though far more so the second. It demonstrates not the horror of war itself, but the horror of the people war creates; the capability for evil of those left living. The dark truths Andreu unearths are as horrifying as any war, the images he dreams up truly disturbing. The child protagonist is a proxy through whom we see things at their most stripped-down, basic, and shocking, exposing to us the sheer lunacy of humanity’s follies. Surprising is the film’s tackling of a particular societal issue which gradually becomes the centre of its comment upon our race, and the animalistic prejudices which, sadly, so often characterise us. Worth making mention of is the film’s name, something of a motif referring to the secondary theme of class and social standing, commenting upon the sickening imbalance between the wealthy and the poor in times of hardship. Most films would do well to achieve half the depth Black Bread manages with this theme, and it is a secondary one.
A worthy addition to the fray of Spanish civil war dramas, Black Bread is a surprisingly dark and deep examination of war’s effect upon the lives and personalities of those who suffer through it. Condemning the capability of ordinary people to do extraordinary evil, it is an impactful portrait of guilt, responsibility, society, and family.
[notification type=”star”]71/100 – A worthy addition to the fray of Spanish civil war dramas, Black Bread is a surprisingly dark and deep examination of war’s effect upon the lives and personalities of those who suffer through it.[/notification]