Directed by Salvador Simó
Written by Eligio R. Montero & Salvador Simó. Based on the graphic novel by Fermin Solis
Starring Jorge Usón, Fernando Ramos and Luis Enrique de Tomás
MPAA rating: Not Rated, but does feature three unsettling sequences of animal cruelty from Buñuel’s Las Hurdes
Running time: 1 hour and 20 minutes
by Ian Hrabe
In 1930, Luis Buñuel set out to make the follow-up to his landmark surrealist film L’Age D’Or (co-directed with Salvador Dali) not with another work of surrealism, but a documentary of the poverty-stricken people of the Las Hurdes region of Spain. Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles chronicles the production of Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread) and in the process attempts to reveal the inner workings of a cinematic genius early in his career. It isn’t entirely successful, but the film makes great use of the biopic formula that opts to use a slice of the subject's life to represent the whole rather than the typically ho-hum A-to-Z approach.
The film begins at the premiere of L’Age D’or where the Parisian audience riots and we see that Buñuel & Dali’s blasphemous cinematic experiment has alienated Buñuel from his financiers (one of whom, we see, has his mother go to the Vatican City to beg the pope not to excommunicate him). When Buñuel’s friend Ramón Acín wins the lottery and offers to fund his documentary, we descend into the fascinating and frustrating world of Buñuel the Filmmaker. Salvador Simó takes us into this world with animation that feels a little ramshackle, but has a handmade charm to it. This look is far better than most of the CGI’d-to-death animated movies that have cornered the market.
The animation is at its best when delivering the surreal dream sequences Buñuel slips in and out of. This world of melting baguettes and four-story tall elephants standing on stilted legs shows us Buñuel’s baseline, which makes the fact that he is filming what is essentially a realist documentary designed to draw attention and pity to the plights of the people of Las Hurdes that much more interesting. When shooting begins, Buñuel can barely contain his surrealist tendencies. This brings up the question of whether or not a documentary presents the truth verbatim, or if that truth can be stretched and amplified through the creator.
We see Buñuel stage three shots in the film, all of them incidentally involving acts of horrifying animal cruelty. The village has a ritual where men ride through town on horseback and rip the head from a rooster dangling over the street. The filmmaker and his crew stage a closeup, but none of the erudite city boys have what it takes to rip the rooster’s head off so they outsource it to a local. Buñuel has heard that goats occasionally fall from the nearby cliffs, and when no goats fall during their visit Buñuel shoots one and sends it down the cliffside in dramatic fashion. The last, but certainly not least (horrifying), involves Buñuel recreating a story he read about the village in the book that spurred him to make the film. The people of Las Hurdes transport their beehives on donkey-back, and occasionally a hive will fall, cover the donkey in honey, and the bees will sting the donkey to death. Buñuel is clearly aroused by this image and deeply committed to including it in his film. One of Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’ most interesting elements is when the film cuts to the actual footage of Las Hurdes (as hard as some of it is to watch). It marries the insane vision of Buñuel to his animated counterpart.
When exploring the filmmaking process, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is engaging. As a film, however, it frequently struggles to dig past the surface level. The film’s coda alerts you that this film was about the relationship between Luis Buñuel and producer Ramón Acín, and while their dynamic of wild artist/conservative moneyman is at the core of the film’s drama, the dots don’t connect the way they need to for the closing pathos to land. There’s a whole subplot about Buñuel being desperate for his father’s approval as a boy that seems to just be there in an effort to give Buñuel depth, but ultimately this has no real impact on the story being told. There are attempts at humor that fall totally flat, and a weird boy’s club vibe that isn’t totally pervasive but features a scene that shows a sexy woman walking down the street and cuts to two men ranking her on a scale of 1 to 10, which is gross and distracting). It’s hard to understand why Buñuel had to make this film in particular when common sense dictated he continue down the surrealist rabbit hole that would lead to some of the most distinctive films of the 20th Century.
One thing the film does exceptionally well is that it avoids painting Buñuel as a wicked genius who needs to be catered to by all of the other characters to make that genius a reality. The crew often ends up bending to his will, but he is at least portrayed as a constant pain in the ass. In one sequence toward the end of filming Las Hurdes he dons a nun’s habit and refuses to remove it before going into the village to film despite the protests of his crew. He eventually takes it off, but only after the mayor of the village calls him a heretic and threatens to kick them out of Las Hurdes (and he really only takes it off when he sees a donkey carrying beehives and knows he needs to be all-business for his forthcoming donkey snuff film). Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’ central theme is a meditation on art and reality, and where the two intersect. While it fully reveres Buñuel, it doesn’t worship him, and does a decent job probing at the human being beneath the artiste. Though the film doesn’t always work, it’s a noble effort nonetheless.