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Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is a stylish, animated take on a surrealist’s work

By focusing on a provocateur, this film becomes provocative, itself

Four men stand behind a camera.
The filmmakers at work.

Salvador Simó’s animated film Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles tells the real-life story about a surrealist through the marvels of animation, bringing life to his visions in a way that live action can’t quite embody. But while the movie’s broader musings on art and sincerity aren’t difficult to grasp, it throws its audience into deeper water than they may be ready for.

Simó presents a fictionalized account of Spanish-born Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel (voiced here by Jorge Usón) and the making of his film Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread). Picking up in 1930, Simó begins at the premiere of Buñuel’s second film, L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age), on which he collaborated with Salvador Dalí, and for which he found himself persona non grata within the French film industry.

Driven both by his need to get out of the country to work and by the idea that his art could help change the world, Buñuel sets out for northern Spain to film one of the poorest areas in the country. His intention is to deliberately break the standards of documentary filmmaking to highlight the suffering in the region as well as take the piss out of those who would exploit and fetishize hardship in foreign countries while ignoring similar problems close to home.

What drives Simó’s film is the realization that Buñuel needs to reconnect to his sense of humanity after rising to prominence as a provocateur, as well as the idea that empathy is perhaps the most important thing in making art. It’s a well-realized arc, and gorgeously animated, but likely to suffer a little disconnect for any audience members unfamiliar with Buñuel’s work and thereby ill-prepared for some of the more upsetting images therein.

A man in a tall hat calls to Buñuel.
The animated Buñuel in the middle of a dream.

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles contains glimpses of the real L’Age d’Or as well as Las Hurdes, and the bits of black-and-white film are enchanting — until it crescendos into some of Buñuel’s more violent work. Roosters having their heads pulled off, goats being shot and thrown down cliffs, a donkey being stung to death by bees; Las Hurdes isn’t Buñuel’s most famous work and may be unfamiliar to even those who know the artist, but devoid of that context — and without knowing it’s coming — it’s even more of a shock.

Simó’s exploration is certain to appeal to Buñuel aficionados, but the film loses a little meaning without the knowledge that Buñuel’s work became less stridently provocative and more humanist as time went on. It forgoes the pitfalls of having to introduce and explain Buñuel (and thereby feel like an educational video rather than an unfolding story), but it loses a little accessibility, too.

The film excels with regard to the craft of animation. The style is simple, making the cuts to Buñuel’s real footage all the more jarring, but also easing the transition into the film’s more surreal segments. This Buñuel is subject to dreams which spring to life through the medium, with glowing butterflies and towering elephants leading Buñuel into meditations on his relationship with his father and with film.

The presence of Ramón Acin (Fernando Ramos), Buñuel’s activist friend who funds Las Hurdes, is a little harder to pin down. Acin’s inclusion in the film helps to ground it and provides a foil for Buñuel, and he becomes something of an audience substitute as Buñuel steamrolls through the countryside. However, it also means that it feels like the film is taking familiarity with Buñuel even more for granted. It’s alright to share character focus when the audience — presumably — already knows so much about the filmmaker.

Still, there’s something admirable about a film so confidently made to fit into a niche. It is what it is, and Simó is clearly passionate about his subject, to the point that concerns about being accessible are nearly thrown out the window. Animation is also arguably the best medium for this story, as it twists reality to capture Buñuel’s penchant for doing the same. The central message holds true, after all. The only hope is that not too many people are caught unawares by the confrontational nature of Buñuel’s work.

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is in limited release now.

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