Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

 

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Luis Buñuel in his thirties is the subject of this extraordinary film.

 
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles
  

Although in retrospect I have some definite reservations about this work, Salvador Simó's first feature to be released here is undoubtedly a labour of love and well worth seeking out by anybody seriously interested in cinema. If you are already familiar with the noted Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, you certainly won't want to miss it but, even if he means little or nothing to you, this piece will still grab your attention as a fascinating example of something quite rare: it's a slice of biography presented as an animated film.

 

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles can't be called a proper biopic because it covers only a small portion of Buñuel’s life, the years between 1930 and 1936. That is to say that its focus is on how, following the scandalous premiere of his film L'age d'or, Buñuel struggled to get another project financed and was eventually able to do so and to shoot the documentary Land Without Bread (Las Hurdes) in Spain. He was helped in this by his friend the painter and sculptor Ramón Acín who had promised his aid should he win in a lottery which by chance he immediately did.

 

The friendship between Buñuel and Acín is a central thread here, despite which it seems rather strange that the film's synopsis should declare it to be in part a buddy adventure. It is in fact much darker than that, even if it does start off as an involving and sometimes witty portrait of a young filmmaker doing all he can to move his career forward with an undertaking about the lives of Spanish peasants, a work of social indignation but also one calculated to attract attention. In portraying this, Simó's film is certainly a tribute by one filmmaker to another, but that does not mean that he is in any sense giving us a hagiography: far from it. What emerges as the film follows Buñuel to Las Hurdes and shows him filming the landscape and its poverty-stricken inhabitants is a very clear indication of the extremes that Buñuel would go to in order to turn this half-hour documentary into a dramatisation of what was happening.

 

If Robert J. Flaherty would find himself taken to task for staging scenes for his 1922 classic Nanook of the North, Buñuel's comparable tactics when making Land Without Bread were even more disconcerting since in creating dramatic moments for the camera he was perfectly ready to indulge in animal cruelty and even in the actual killing of animals - and any claims that he was adding a surrealistic element to his film can hardly be said to justify any of this. Buñuel's streak of savagery is investigated by Simó who uses dream sequences, often of a Daliesque nature, to suggest how Buñuel's difficult relationship with his father and the latter's toughening up of the boy by making him watch vultures eating their prey would make a lasting impression on his psyche (we even seem to come close to the impact on his son of the father in Michael Powell's fictional masterpiece of 1960 Peeping Tom!).

 

The main narrative in Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles works admirably for the most part (even the obvious comedy of Buñuel being prone to recklessness when driving a car may be true to the facts since Simó's preparations for the film had him conversing with Buñuel's son Juan Luis). Particularly telling are the insertions from time to time of actual footage from Land Without Bread. In contrast to that the many dream sequences are rather crudely cut in and often seem fanciful so that one questions how acceptable they are as a true representation of the filmmaker's psychology. Similarly, the way in which the dark side of Buñuel's character is revealed sits uneasily beside Simós admiration for him. These two elements can validly co-exist, of course, but to express this intricate balance properly calls for something more than is achieved here (one feels that a book or a standard biopic would provide better opportunities to cover this in detail). We do see Ramón Acín made angry by Buñuel's behaviour, but both their later reconciliation and other scenes that show a more emotional side to Buñuel call for a more thorough examination. Consequently, despite this material not being an obvious candidate to become an animated film, I would sum up by saying that certain aspects struck me as totally justifying that format whereas other elements left me feeling that they would have gained from being in a different medium. As it happens the most satisfying touch of all comes in the written statements that close the film: it's a final word on the relationship between Buñuel and Acín and it tells of a gesture made by the filmmaker in 1960.

 

Original title: Buñuel en el laberinto de las tortugas.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Voices of  Jorge Usón, Fernando Ramos, Luis Enrique de Tomás, Cyril Corral, Javier Balas, Gabriel Latorre, Pepa Gracia, Fermin Núñez, Rachel Lascar, María Pérez and Salvador Simó.

 

Dir Salvador Simó, Pro Manuel Cristóbal, Jose Mª Fernández de Vega, Bruno Félix and Femke Wolting, Screenplay Eligio R.Montero and Salvador Simó, from the graphic novel by Fermín Solís, Art Dir José Luis Ágreda, Ed José Manuel Jiménez, Music Arturo Cardélus.

  
Sygnatia/The Glow/Submarine/Hampa Studios-BFI Distribution.
80 mins. Spain/Netherlands/Germany. 2018. Rel: 16 July 2020. Available on BFI Player. No Cert.