VOD film review: Buñuel and the Labyrinth of the Turtles
Laurence Boyce | On 02, Aug 2020
Director: Salvador Simó
Cast: Jorge Usón, Fernando Ramos, Luis Enrique de Tomás, Cyril Corral
Watch Buñuel and the Labyrinth of the Turtles online in the UK: BFI Player
Those who have seen Luis Buñuel’s work will know of his power as a filmmaker. Even though it’s been more than nine decades since L’Age D’or – his first film – it still works as a shocking and vital satire of religion and bourgeois values in which Buñuel utilised his avant-garde and surrealistic world view to their fullest. Causing fights and outrage, it scandalised France (where the Spanish born filmmaker lived and worked) and was censured for its anti-Catholic sentiments.
It is at this moment – with a cinema descending into anarchy after a screening – where Salvador Simó’s Buñuel and the Labyrinth of the Turtles begins. Luis Buñuel (voiced by Jorge Usón) finds himself shunned by financiers and the filmmaking community and unsure of what his next project will be. But when he is asked to make a documentary about the Las Hurdes region of Spain – one of the poorest regions in the country – he is energised, wanting to shake up a complacent bourgeois audience with images of what real life is like for a forgotten part of the population.
With no one willing to finance him, he turns to his friend, the sculptor and anarchist Ramón Acín, who promises that he’ll fund Buñuel should be ever win the lottery – which he promptly does. Buñuel, Acín and a small crew then pack themselves off to the inhospitable region of Las Hurdes where tensions rise as Buñuel struggles with his artistic vision and Acín becomes increasingly concerned with his friend’s ethical choices.
Based on Fermín Solís’ graphic novel of the same name, Buñuel and the Labyrinth of the Turtles is an often complex affair that tries to fit much in within a scant 75-minute runtime. We deal with Buñuel’s own internal conflict about the surrealist movement and how he wants to be remembered as an artist. We discover more about the troubled relationship with his father and his earliest filmmaking experiences. There’s his friendship and collaboration with Acín as well as the daily strife of actually making Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread, which the finished project would actually become) in inhospitable territory and dealing with the poverty and death that surrounds them every day. It’s also an examination of the ethics of documentary filmmaking and whether “faking scenes” to represent a truer reality is ever justified.
The themes the film wants to explore are remarkably ambitious, but it sometimes fails to fulfil its lofty goals. There’s so much going on, it’s often hard to find a ‘through line’ as we bounce from one emotional thread to another. Yet despite sometimes becoming bogged down by its own aspirations, there is much to admire here. Its animation style has an art deco, 1930s feel that plays with the spaces between surrealism and the naturalistic. It allows for a few bravura moments – mostly depicting Buñuel’s vivid and strange dreams – while posing questions about the nature of reality.
This is heightened by the fact that the film uses real scenes from Land Without Bread interspersed throughout the film. These are often disturbing, such as an ill girl, dying in the streets alongside some scenes of uncomfortable animal cruelty: a rooster has its head ripped off; goats fall off mountains; and a donkey is stung to death by bees. With the latter incidents “staged” by the crew (with them shooting the donkeys and Buñuel himself setting the bees loose) the film asks us to questions the morality of such decisions and whether the questions about the human condition should be directed Buñuel and his collaborators than the inhabitants of Las Hurdes. Certainly, those who balk at anything approaching animal mistreatment would be advised to give this a wide berth.
For all its introspection and darkness, there is plenty of dry humour in the film. Moments in which Las Hurdes inhabitants zoom around in a car are played for low laughs while there is an enjoyable ridiculousness in Buñuel parading around in a nun’s outfit (something that he indeed used to do in real life). There’s also a genuine warmth and humanity in the relationship between Buñuel and Acín and – ultimately – the desire to improve the lives if the Las Hurdes inhabitants.
Those who are expecting a lightweight animation will find themselves rather shocked by Buñuel and the Labyrinth of the Turtles – which, in itself, has slight shades of the surrealism movement and its ideas of shocking audiences – but those who are interested in film history, surrealism and art will find much to think about.
Buñuel and the Labyrinth of the Turtles is available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.