By Christopher Bell | The Playlist January 16, 2012 at 10:03AM
Somewhere in the mouth of a vast, dreary weald, a merchant trucks along with his wares. He stops briefly to check his wagon but is startled by some rustling nearby. At this point, even the most novice movie-goer can figure out that this man won't make it out of these woods alive. In a sequence that would make Michael Haneke proud, the masked attacker bursts in for the kill, following his act of brutality by taking the horse and wagon to a cliff, bashing the animal in the face, and sending it down the precipice. Bright-eyed Andreu (Francesc Colomer, who looks like the young death row kid from Werner Herzog's "Into The Abyss") stumbles upon the wreckage, and to make matters even more frightening, he finds a friend in the cart already on the brink of death. The boy can only muster up a single word, "Pitorliua" -- the name of a spirit said to reside in a nearby cave. Andreu reports the death to his family, but he can't figure out where Pitorliua fits in this puzzle. It's this mystery that propels the whole of "Black Bread" along, though its driving force is often hindered by other extraneous elements -- quite often there is too much going on and it gives things an overwhelming, cluttered feel.
Set in 1944 after the Spanish Civil War in a village full of hopeless poverty, there's little time to mourn following the murder and a finger is immediately pointed at Andreu's father, Farriol (Roger Casamajor), a business partner of the recently deceased and a supporter of the defeated political regime. The mayor (Sergi Lopez) more or less forces the man to go into hiding in France, causing the boy to be sent to his grandmother's humble abode. Here he spends time with cousin Nuria (Marina Comas), a free spirit with an arm deformation caused by a grenade. While their relationship starts innocently, the girl reveals her promiscuous nature to Andreu in a way that only happens in movies: lying together on a blanket in the woods, Nuria places his hand on her crotch, hoping to instill some sort of sexual curiosity. Instead, he's appalled -- but just add it to the list of the despicable behavior surrounding him, including his mother pushing him to woo a wealthy family friend (Mrs. Manubens, played by Merce Aranega) enough to eventually adopt him and provide a better education. Miss Havisham much? Slowly he begins to understand the relationship between his family and Manubens, uncovering a deep secret connected to both the opening murder and the clue his friend had shared with him before death.
It's certainly a hefty amount of plot, and that's not even mentioning his father's bird business (the winged creatures serve as metaphors quite often throughout), the tuberculosis patient Andreu befriends in the woods, the alcoholic teacher that is sleeping with Nuria, etc. While they certainly help paint a gritty picture, the amount of set up all of these components require don't justify their general lack of payoff in the end. Moreover, the number of extreme elements in the film -- pedophilia, lies, murder, politics, and so on -- are fine on their own, but weaken and frustrate when compiled together. And thanks to the abundance of these hefty devices there’s very little breathing room for each, and while the handling by director Agustí Villaronga is very reserved, their inherent weighty nature can often feel over the top.
Despite this, there is something interesting about every character's moral ambiguity. Much like the real world, nobody is completely good or bad, and the filmmaker does a great job in portraying their contradictory and complex nature in a non-judgemental way. Even though Andreu becomes disgusted by his character's conduct, his final decision following the discovery of the masked assassin is one of the more interesting arcs in movie; while undoubtedly pessimistic, it is also both subtle and satisfying.
Villaronga's decision to shoot in an actual village gives the film a distinct, lived-in flavor; the grim setting, ruddy schoolhouse and enchanting forest are all more than just locations needed for plot points to be dished out. They’re characters themselves, reflecting the outcome war has had on the uninvolved. It’s all captured in hand-held, giving the movie not a documentary feel but a strange and urgent uneasiness. Since the camera is never still we’re unable to get comfortable enough around these people to actually trust any of them -- a rather fitting aesthetic given their untrustworthy nature.
Though definitely bloated with a bit too many superfluous threads, Spain’s entry to the Academy Awards still contains some worthwhile substance. Regardless of some melodramatic aspects and overly familiar moments, it’s still hard to look away from at times. [B-]
"Black Bread" is currently without U.S. distribution.