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Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is an animated ode to the power of film

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is an animated ode to the power of film

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is a deceptively surreal title for this wondrous animated feature that chronicles the Spanish filmmaker’s efforts to direct his short documentary, Las Hurdes.

Directed and co-written by Salvador Simó, and based on a graphic novel, the film opens in a Paris café in 1930, where a group of intellectuals are discussing the nature and purpose of art; they declare it should change the way people think and feel. And that theory is proven in subsequent scenes as Buñuel’s surrealistic masterpiece, L’Age d’Or, a collaboration with Salvador Dali, is screened at a local cinema to boos and applause. But Buñuel (voiced by Jorge Usón) soon finds himself unable to work or fund his next project. He eventually decides to make Las Hurdes, a documentary about peasants in a poor, rural area of Spain.

Buñuel’s luck changes when his anarchist friend Ramón Acín Aquilué (voiced by Fernando Ramos), wins the lottery and agrees to finance his production. Buñuel and Ramón head off to shoot on location with Eli Lotar (Cyril Corral) and Pierre Unik (Luis Enrique de Tomás) arriving from Paris. 

Part of the charm of Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles is Simó incorporating footage from Las Hurdes into the film to show how the animation mirrors the reality. But there are also numerous surrealistic episodes depicting Buñuel’s anxiety dreams—he envisions baguettes moving in a bakery, or tall elephants with stick-figure legs roaming the streets. In addition, Samó provides magical scenes, such as the young Buñuel creating a shadow play for his friends, a clever sequence that also illustrates how the filmmaker came to make his art and craved his father’s approval.

There is also comedy in scenes of Buñuel driving dangerously—especially down a mountainside—or testing the patience (and emptying the wallet) of the put-upon Ramón. The relationship between the friends becomes strained over the course of the story, but it packs a real wallop when an end credit describes what transpired in real life. 

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles includes other touching scenes in Las Hurdes, as when the filmmakers happen upon a sick young girl whom they are unable to help, or visit with schoolchildren, who take a liking to Buñuel. In contrast, when the director arrives in town dressed as a nun, his subversive behavior upsets the mayor. 

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But for all the playful, sad, real, and surreal moments, the film does feature several scenes of violence against roosters (which Buñuel is afraid of), goats, and donkeys. These episodes each serve a purpose in his filmmaking, but seeing the animals abused in both real and animated footage is disturbing. 

However, the film does make a point in what Buñuel witnesses and films in Las Hurdes; harsh reality should not be ignored. Buñuel’s documentary short reflects the terrible conditions of humanity.Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles shows the difficulties faced by an artist trying to prove himself while also making people think and feel. 

Samó’s stylish film is beautifully rendered by the animation team, with deep colors and dreamy images. It may be a peculiar subject, perhaps best appreciated by cinephiles, but this imaginative and at times innovative feature deserves a large audience.  

 Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles opens today in Philly theaters.

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