Spanish animation film “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” is the interesting presentation of Luis Buñuel at an early point in his life and career. While it may not surprise you that much if you are a longtime admirer of Buñuel’s works like me, the film is still compelling in its humorous depiction of the production process of a documentary film Buñuel and his colleagues struggled to make at that time, and it is even touching as we later come to see more of the importance of that documentary to Buñuel and his colleagues.
The film begins its story in Paris, 1930, when Buñuel shocked and enraged many audiences with his first feature film “L’Age d’Or” (1930). Although it may look relatively less striking than his great short film “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) at present, “L’Age d’Or” was regarded as something so controversial and subversive at that time that even the Vatican considered the excommunication of its producer as shown from a brief scene in the film, and, not so surprisingly, Buñuel subsequently found himself in trouble as no producer was particularly willing to work with him.
While Buñuel (voiced by Jorge Usón) struggles to move on with his life and career, he happens to receive an ethnographic book on the Lar Hurdes region of Spain, and he soon becomes interested in making a documentary in that region. Although Salvador Dalí, who previously worked with him “Un Chien Andalou”, refuses to give him any financial help, Ramon Acin, an anarchist sculptor who is another close friend of Buñuel, happens to be able to finance the production of the documentary after winning a lottery by chance, and they soon embark on the production process along with their writer Pierre Unik (voiced by Luis Enrique de Tomás) and their cinematographer Eli Lotar (voiced by Cyril Corral).
During their first days in Lars Hurdes, the situation looks fairly promising although there are a number of obstacles for Buñuel and his colleagues. While they are allowed to stay in a small monastery outside a village called La Alberca, they always have to wake up early for shooting their documentary in a more impoverished and isolated area, and Acin is not that pleased as Buñuel casually spends a considerable portion of their modest production budget on several expensive things including a new car to transport them back and forth between their staying place and the shooting location.
When Buñuel and his colleagues arrive at a small community which is going to be their main place for shooting, they are shocked and dismayed to behold shabby and miserable human conditions observed from the residents. As they shoot one thing after another, the actual shots from their documentary are intercut with this process, and the resulting contrast between animation and live action film on the film is pretty striking to say the least.
While he and his colleagues try to make their documentary as realistic as possible, Buñuel does not care that much about being truthful, and we get several amusingly uncomfortable moments which show us how far he is willing to go for his artistic vision. At one point early in the story, he tries to shoot a chicken being brutally slaughtered, and, as shown from an actual clip from the documentary, he manages to capture the process vividly on the camera. In case of those two poor mountain goats, he willingly has them get cornered and then killed just because that will make the scene more dramatic, and, again, he surely gets what he wants in the end.
Of course, Buñuel comes to clash more with Acin, who gradually runs out of patience as Buñuel goes a bit too far at times. There eventually comes a point where Acin finally decides that enough is enough, but then Buñuel finds a way to continue the shooting of their documentary, and that leads to a seemingly sentimental moment which ends with a wryly humorous touch.
Meanwhile, the film also explores a bit on Buñuel’s childhood period. While his wealthy father might have a role in making young Buñuel interested in art and cinema, he constantly remains to be a stern, disapproving figure hovering over Buñuel’s subconsciousness, and Buñuel is still yearning for the approval and recognition from him. In case of his mother, we get a funny dream scene where she appears in front of him as a certain well-known holy figure, but I must say that I was a bit disappointed that the film does not delve that deep into Buñuel’s lifelong foot fetish, which, accordingly to him, was originated from none other than his mother’s foot.
Although the animation style of the film may look a bit too broad at first, Director/writer Salvador Simó, who adapted Fermín Solís “Buñuel en el laberinto de las tortugas” with Eligio R. Montero, did a commendable job of bringing enough style and mood to his film, and I enjoyed those occasional surreal moments which reflect well Buñuel’s artistic imagination and sensibility. I like a decidedly surrealistic scene showing elephants walking on their impossibly long legs, and I was also amused by a scene depicting Buñuel and his colleagues’ accidental encounter with a group of local disabled people.
In conclusion, “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” is an engaging glimpse into Buñuel’s life and career, and it did job well with care and respect. I wish it could show and tell more in longer running time, it still feels solid and sufficient on the whole, and it is definitely something you cannot miss if you have ever seen any of those interesting works of Buñuel.