Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

In 1930, surrealist Spanish-born filmmaker Luis Bunuel and his tiny crew journey to Las Hurdes, the poorest of poor places in Spain, for his third documentary, “Land Without Bread.” Animator Salvador Simo tells the young maverick’s story of this adventure in “Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles.”

Laura's Review: B+

After his L’Age d’Or opened to controversy, Luis Buñuel (voice of Jorge Uson) is questioned about co-director Dali’s influence on his work, ex-communicated by the Vatican and cannot find financing for his next film. His anarchist friend Ramón Acín (voice of Fernando Ramos), wishing to help the ‘poorest of the poor’ in Spain’s northern region of Las Hurdes, promises that if he wins the Christmas lottery, he will give Buñuel the money for his documentary on the area. Acín is as surprised as anyone to find himself the producer when his luck puts “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles.”

First things first – this animation’s title, given to match its surrealist subject, refers to the twisty streets of Las Hurdes, the small stone homes’ roofs remarked upon as looking like turtle shells. Director Salvador Simó, who has done visual effects work on such films as 2016’s “The Jungle Book” and the animation segments in 2010’s Allen Ginsberg movie “Howl,” has made an illuminating look into the making of one of Buñuel’s earliest films, “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” (known as “Land Without Bread” in the U.S.). It reveals a Buñuel consumed with jealousy of Dali, insistent that he is the preeminent Spanish surrealist, as well as obsessed with death, morbidly so when it comes to the animals of the mountainous northern territory. Be warned, there is some barbaric animal cruelty on display here, Simó emphasizing Buñuel’s disregard for documentary truth by recreating horrific regional animal fate he hears about by inserting footage from the documentary itself. Another passage shows Buñuel exploiting inbred locals, opening their mouths like horses, then purposely frightening them when they demand a car ride in return for being filmed. (The 1932 film is still so controversial today, a documentary “Buñuel’s Prisoners,” was made about Las Hurdes residents still simmering in anger in 2000.)

That background accounted for, this is quite the unexpected film, a most unusual subject for animation treatment. The animation style is rather flat, figures moving in the surface plane against stationary backgrounds, but the characters are nicely stylized and the color spectrum natural, accented with bright bursts in the surrealistic touches of Buñuel’s visions (melting baguettes, elephants on giraffe-like legs, swarms of yellow butterflies). Original music by Arturo Cardelús features classical violin.

Buñuel himself is tyrannical, paying no heed to the limits of his budget (cinematographer Eli Lotar (voice of Cyril Corral) and writer Pierre Unik (voice of Luis Enrique de Tomás) take a taxi from Paris to meet his demands, almost causing Acin to faint). When they fail to get villagers pulling the head off a rooster on film, Luis hires a local to do it when none on his crew has the stomach for it (including, notably, himself) for ten times the amount he would have taken (the first instance of cinematic fraud). To ‘save money,’ Luis has chosen a spartan monastery as their filmmaking base, shocking them all with a 4:30 wakeup call before the lengthy drive followed by a 2-4 hour walk to get to Las Hurdes. The call will be a half an hour earlier thereafter when eating breakfast in front of starving villagers proves impossible.

Buñuel, who is willing to endure hardships for his art, isn’t all heartless, showing tenderness toward children both in an orphanage and with a little girl who has laid down on the street to die, but his treatment of a donkey for his film is criminal. Later, his artistic ego again on shaky ground, the filmmaker dons a nun’s habit to go the village, infuriating Acin who must remind him why they are there. The director is haunted in nightmares by angry chickens and the combined figure of his father and Dali.

“Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” may be animated, but is not for children. It is an uncommon look at a critical and controversial point in the career of one of cinema’s great artists.

Robin's Review: B+

Director Simo, with co-scribe Eligio R. Montero, adapt Fermin Solis Campos’s graphic novel (by the same name as the film), create an insightful biography of the early career of the iconic director.

Luis’s latest film, “L’Age D’Or,” opened to, let us say, less than an enthusiastic reception – the Catholic Church condemned it. Now, he is a pariah in the film business and cannot get funding for a project, inspired by anthropologist Maurice Legendre, to take him to “the most miserable and forgotten place in the world.” His best friend, Ramon, promises Luis that, if he wins the Christmas lottery, he will finance the film. He wins and the adventure begins.

The animated telling of this slice of Bunuel’s life is, mostly, a straightforward and no frills anime that efficiently informs about the auteur, his methods and his questionable promise to “film reality, pure and naked.” You have to see this homage to the director to find out how Bunuel played with the details of his promise – all for the sake of the film image.

The filmmakers take what could be a routine animated biopic and add a dimension that puts the film up a notch in my esteem. When we get to the actual controversial scenes from “Land Without Bread” – falling goats, a dying child, the inbreed inhabitants of the isolated village, a donkey stung to death by outraged bees – Simo and company intercut the celluloid scenes from the film itself to excellent effect.

“Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” will educate film buffs like me – who tragically knows little about the iconic filmmaker – and gives a great deal of insight into the mind of the man. It is a good combination of animation and biography.