A man is attacked in the Catalan woods, brutally murdered by a cloaked assailant; his son, in the back of their horse-drawn wagon, is driven over a cliff and left to die. Found by his friend Andreu (a terrific Francesc Colomer), the boy breathes out the name of a ghost in his final moments: Pitorliua.
It’s an incredibly dramatic opening to Agustí Villaronga’s 2010 award-winning adaptation of Emili Teixidor’s novel. Set in the years immediately following Franco’s crushing victory, Black Bread is not just another story, similar to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), of the Spanish Civil War as seen through the eyes of an imaginative child. While history is important to the narrative, the director cleverly subverts the audience’s expectations, slowly revealing a much more nuanced and layered film, with a disturbing mystery at its core. It’s a gripping, richly textured work, and if the symbolism at times seems heavy-handed, that minor weakness is more than made up for by the twists that the plot takes.
As the film begins to unfold, the audience learns that Andreu’s father, Farriol (Roger Casamajor), and the murdered man were friends and fellow trade unionists, both on the losing side of the war. Was his death some sort of revenge, a score settling? Is Andreu’s father next? In the eyes of the police, the victors, Farriol must be guilty. His only hope is to flee over the mountains and into the relative safety of France, a route many men, lucky enough to escape the purge of the reds, have already taken. Andreu is sent away to live with his grandmother, who is a caretaker for a wealthy family headed by an overbearing matriarch, who will later hold the fates of Farriol and Andreu in her hands. Along with Andreu, his grandmother also shelters his family’s abandoned women and children, including the wild Nuria (Marina Comas), a cousin who lost a hand to a grenade. Although the adults pretend that her father also escaped to France, she knows the much more disturbing truth.
At night, Andreu and his cousins live in a shadowy world of superstitions and storytelling; there’s an air of menace in the dark and gloomy, claustrophobic farmhouse, perfectly captured by Antonio Riestra’s hand-held cinematography. The children, who are outcasts and misfits, paying the price for their parents’ socialism, see intrigue and adventure around every corner. And, in some ways, the children are right: conspiracies and cover-ups are everywhere. But the biggest mystery that Andreu has to solve is how the ghost of a man who is said to haunt the woods, cursed ever since the war, could be involved in the death of his young friend.
Complex questions about guilt and innocence aren’t neatly resolved; Farriol, who still professes devotion to his ideals, is not necessarily the victim he first appears to be when he’s persecuted for the murder by the fascist mayor (Sergi López), who once pursued Andreu’s mother (Nora Navas). And when the story spins in a completely unexpected direction, it’s not even clear that the vicious crime is directly related to the war at all. The truth is that a conflict of that horror and magnitude provides cover for a multitude of sins.
While the film isn’t a witch-hunt, it is unsparing in its criticism of the Church. The clergy, on the side of the fascists, sit in judgement on their parishioners, even controlling what they eat - allowing those unfortunates on the losing side only coarse, black bread as some kind of twisted punishment. It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that, in the end, a bitterly disillusioned Andreu chooses the path that he does.