Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles Review
Co-written with Eligio Montero, director Salvador Simó Busom's Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is a stunning adaption of Fermín Solís' original graphic novel that places the animated feature alongside other masterful adaptations Persepolis (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008). What unfolds is a drama of true friendship and study of a man struggling with reality, while reminding us how relevant 2D animation can be amongst the dominance of CGI and Disney/Pixar daydreams.
The story begins with Buñuel and a group of artist friends discussing the meaning of art and its place in the world, where we are immediately drawn into the scene of the time across Europe. Having fallen out with Dalí and living in his shadow, Buñuel begins to suffer somewhat of an identity crisis; the weight of criticism questioning his own vision and place in the art world. Before long we are at the premiere of his second film, L'Age d'Or in 1930 — a provocative film that went onto influence Pasolini's controversial piece, 120 days of Sodom (1975), almost 50 years later.
Ever the provocateur, Buñuel's L'Age d'Or sparked the Spanish to publish a condemnation, “...the most repulsive corruption of our age ... the new poison which Judaism, Masonry, and rabid, revolutionary sectarianism want to use to corrupt the people.” The newspaper went on to further condemn Buñuel along with Dalí, who was attached to the project as a writer after they collaborated on their hugely influential debut Un Chien Andalou (1929). Reviled by his homeland and blacklisted by the French film industry he is left penniless.
In light of one of Buñuel's acquaintances leading him to consider creating a more respectful film — one that could potentially change the world and its views — he rethinks his path. But, struggling to find the backing, he consolidates in his close friend, sculptor Ramón Acín. Jokingly, he purchases a lottery ticket and tells Buñuel that if he wins he will produce his film. Lo and behold, Ramón wins and they head off to northern Spain, near the border of Portugal, to shoot in the mountain villages of Las Hurdes. What proceeds is a stunning animated film that captures the production of Buñuel's 1933 film Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan (Land Without Bread) that utilises the medium of animation perfectly to capture and juxtapose such a controversial figure and his questionable direction on the set of his pseudo-documentary.
Despite the subject matter and infamous scenes of Land Without Bread — where Buñuel has a chicken's head ripped off; pulls his revolver on a goat as he films it falling off a cliff, and ties a donkey down as it is stung to death by bees — it is surprising that there is any sympathy for the man at all. “Death is hiding in every corner but it won’t come out if we don’t force it,” he shouts as the acts spark epiphanies and flashbacks to his childhood and the seeds of his surreal imagination. Yet, the irony lies in how little surrealism there is as Buñuel's childhood is dissected through the beautiful animation that delivers the sensitivity needed to paint such a humanistic portrait of such a controversial figure.
Aside from the beautiful design and animation, what elevates the film further is the wonderful score by Arturo Cardelús — there is a sensitivity and heritage to the music that isn't there to manipulate but guide you through the story. The animation is delicate — taking its time with the characters as we watch Buñuel slip off his shoes and light a cigarette, turn the pages of his book and stroke the paper — it is all in the subtle acting the animators have captured; the poise and posture and wonderful voices that have been cast. There is a beautiful flashback to his childhood where he creates a magic lantern show; a moment highlighting the lost and abandoned child Buñuel relates to up in the mountains. The scene illustrates how he has grown into a hard and dangerous man and we wonder, amongst the exploitation we witness, whether he has any soul left at all until the film's heartbreaking final moments.
The film is designed to question our emotions rather than manipulate them but also question how far art should go — where does surrealism end and realism begin? These celluloid boundaries are interrupted by clips from his original films placed throughout as we witness several infamous scenes contextualised by the comedy and drama off-camera that distances us from the acts themselves.
While Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is no kids' cartoon nor for animal lovers, it is an important animated film that shows how far the medium is willing to go to tell a story. Busom has not only delivered the perfect love letter to filmmaking but also managed to show us — through the eyes of such a controversial figure — what art can mean; that it continues to inform not just cinema but the world. Art is debate and as a friend of Buñuel's states at the beginning of the film, “It’s not about changing the law but changing the way people think.”
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is released on BFI Player from July 16.
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2018)
Dir: Salvador Simó | Cast: Cyril Corral, Fernando Ramos, Jorge Usón, Luis Enrique de Tomás | Writers: Eligio R. Montero, Fermín Solís (graphic novel), Salvador Simó