Black Bread: Film Review

Stodgy, starchy and not particularly nutritious, "Black Bread" is the latest in a very long line of films to examine the harmful effects of war and its aftermath upon innocent children.

SAN SEBASTIAN -- Stodgy, starchy and not particularly nutritious, Black Bread is the latest in a very long line of films to examine the harmful effects of war and its aftermath upon innocent children. Adapted from a well-regarded literary novel, the mainstream-oriented picture tries to cram too much incident and symbolism into its two-hour running-time. Nevertheless, the Spanish has a solid domestic box office prospects given the subject matter, the familiarity of the source material and the starry cast.

Notably positive reactions from local and national press after the movie's world premiere in competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival will boost its appeal within Spain, along with Nora Navas' Best Actress award for her performance as the youthful protagonist's put-upon mother. Festivals specializing in Iberian fare will want to check out this Catalan-language production (original title Pa Negre) set in the countryside near Barcelona in 1944.

Main focus is on bright Andreu (Francesc Colomer), aged around 10, whose family are implicated in the ongoing conflict between the government forces of General Franco, successful in the recently-concluded Spanish Civil War, and those who oppose or resist the victorious nationalists. In an atmosphere of tension and suspicion, the children of the area channel their fears into folk-tales of supernatural forces in the surrounding hills and forests.

This aspect of the story allows Villaronga (best known for co-directing 2003's Aro Tolbukhin: In the Mind of a Killer) to incorporate some gothic, supernatural touches that place Black Bread in the tradition of Victor Erice's enduringly seminal masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Guillermo Del Toro's global hit Pan's Labyrinth (2005). He even casts the latter movie's Sergi Lopez in a very similar role as a sneering Fascist bully-boy.

But such comparisons only serve to emphasize the shortcomings of Black Bread. (The intriguing title refers to the brown-flour food which peasants like Andreu's family subsist on.) After a startlingly violent and disturbing opening - involving simulated (but very realistic-looking) cruelty to a horse, the film gradually bogs down into an overcomplicated stew of secrets, lies, myths and melodramatic revelations.

Villaronga generally handles proceedings in a bland, functional manner. Hand-held camerawork is deployed to give proceedings a slightly arty touch. He does obtain fresh performances from his child actors, their realistic brattishness offsetting a general tendency towards tear-jerking sentimentality that's especially noticeable in the grim final reels.

Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival
Production companies: Massa d'Or Prods., Televisio de Catalunya
Cast: Francesc Colomer, Marina Comas, Nora Navas, Roger Casamajor, Laia Marull, Eduard Fernandez, Sergi Lopez
Director/screenwriter: Agusti Villaronga
Based on a novel by: Emili Teixidor
Producers: Lluis Ferrando, Isona Passola
Director of photography: Antonio Riestra
Production designer: Ana Alvargonzalez
Music: Jose Manuel Pagan
Costume designer: Merce Paloma
Editor: Raul Roman
Sales: Beta Film
No rating, 115 minutes

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