Due to the criticism of his first feature film, "L'Age d'Or", director Luis Bu uel is unable to find new works. An anthropologist named Maurice Legendre hands Bu uel an ethnographic study on the Spanish region of Las Hurdes and asks him if he would consider making a documentary about that region. Bu uel's friend, sculptor Ramon Acin, buys a lottery ticket and promises, if he wins, to use the money to finance the film. Indeed, Ramon wins and keeps his promise. So Buuel gathers a film crew in the city of La Alberca.
From La Alberca, Bu uel leads the group to a monastery that doubles as a hostel. From the monastery, the team explores the neighboring villages. The villages consist of ramshackle houses in the shape of packed boxes. The winding streets between the houses make each village look like a maze, and Ramon notes that the jagged roofs resemble the scales of a turtle. The crew is shocked by the poverty conditions of those houses. The abundance of their food supplies amazes the villagers. When they start filming a school, they find that the locals earn most of their money through government funding, for the care of orphaned children, and that schoolchildren crowd around Buuel desperate for his affection. to be adopted. Bu uel later finds a little girl who dies on the street and feels powerless for not having the right medicine that could cure her.
Although the film is a documentary, Bu uel stages many sequences with dramatic effects, despite the disapproval of his crew. In La Alberca, Bu uel hires Ramon a farmer to reconstruct the local tradition of tearing the head off a rooster. Later, Buuel wants to film an image of a mountain goat slipping and falling off a cliff, but shoots a dead goat rather than waiting for an accident to happen. Bu uel also arranges for a donkey to be shot dead by bees, to be used as a symbol for the suffering of the local population.
During the shoot, Bu uel is haunted by the nightmares of his troubled childhood. A nightmare about his mother and the Virgin Mary forces him to dress like a nun. When the sick girl eventually dies, Buuel has a nightmare in which he sees a friend from the region as Death. The nightmare inspires him to have the villagers reconstruct a child's funeral for the film.