An animated movie by GKIDS Films about one of the great iconoclasts and rebels of the cinema is fittingly surreal when the subject in question is Luis Buñuel. The Spanish master has been conjured in numerous films about other people over the years, from his comic-light appearance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to Little Ashes, an altogether not uninteresting drama about Buñuel’s broken friendship with Salvador Dali. That, too, was a surreal experience in that Dali was interpreted no less by Robert Pattinson. I have to report, however, that this new animated feature, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, is till now the best dramatization of Buñuel’s early years, since it’s illustrated approach is free to imagine the master’s mind as a landscape of distorting dreams while still wisely interpreting the world around him. Director Salvador Simo also understands something elemental about Surrealism as a movement: that it was not simply about trippy images but, perhaps more so, about the revolutionary transformation of life and the world.
Simo begins this story in the Paris of the early 30s when the world was still emerging from that cataclysmic wave of cultural transformation of which World War I was the detonator. Buñuel (voiced by Jorge Uson), then a head-strong young artist, stands in the back of a smoky theater watching an audience react in convulsions to his 1930 L’age d’Or, a surrealist reverie about love and repression with a dash of De Sade that sparked right-wing riots. Having recently broken with collaborator and friend Salvador Dali (who by then had become obsessed with selling himself commercially), Buñuel is left searching for the next project. He’s handed a book about a desperate region known as Las Hurdes, hidden in a land still trapped in the Middle Ages. Following a night of raucous drinking, the filmmaker’s friend, Ramon Acin (Fernando Ramos), makes a deal: if he wins the lottery he’ll fund the project. Win it he does, and soon he, Buñuel and two cameramen from France travel to the desolate region to confront a brutal reality both hallucinatory and piercing.
The life of Luis Buñuel, one of Cinema’s most beautifully anarchic voices, was itself so cinematic that any number of filmic narratives could be taken from it. At the age of 29 his first film would already solidify itself in the medium’s history. Un Chien Andalou, with its infamous opening scene of a sliced eye, is birth-point for directors ranging from David Lynch to Nicolas Winding Refn. The eruption of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, a conflict as defining then as Syria today, would send Buñuel into exile to Mexico where he would direct a large array of films, some melodramas for hire, others inspired masterpieces like Los Olvidados, The Exterminating Angel and Simon of the Desert.
In his late 60s he would return to Europe and again capture the attention of film watchers the world over with liberating, provocative films of boundless surreal energy, like Viridiana, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. But Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is a portrait of the artist soon after his first triumphs, though still a young, emerging voice unsure of the future.
Simo’s choice of focusing on the making of Las Hurdes is both original and insightful. The actual documentary itself is an eerie, absorbing work, full of imagery unnerving in its depiction of the harsh reality of a region ensnared in near darkness and scored oddly to selections from Brahms. The opening of Simo’s film gives a hint as to why Buñuel would be attracted to documenting this world. He himself was raised in Calanda, Spain, a place where at the dawn of the 20th century the modern world melded with a medieval past. In the first moments of the movie, a young Luis marches with the “drummers of Calanda,” a multitude of men on an Easter journey through the town, drums slung around as they play in commemoration of the darkness that befell the earth at the moment of Christ’s death.
In his classic autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel recalls the drumming as a great thunderclap, earlier observing that in Calanda, “the Middle Ages lasted until World War I.” Labyrinth of the Turtles depicts this memory with a close-up of little Luis’s hands showing streaks of blood, as some drummers will keep going until their skin cracks. These drums would appear again and again as a visceral backbeat to Buñuel films like L’age d’Or and Nazarin, providing a religious fervor to profane brilliance. The Spanish director Carlos Saura, a pupil of Buñuel’s, would render homage to his master in the film Peppermint Frappe, where Geraldine Chaplin, as a lonely man’s unattainable obsession, appears playing the drums of Calanda.
When the journey to Las Hurdes begins, Simo uses this tale as a symbol of Buñuel leaving the confines of modernity to then explore his own raging psyche. The animation is simple yet elegant, close to classic anime. The director is illustrated with a look that captures that rugged face and those bulging, large eyes that betray a violent intelligence. The valleys surrounding Las Hurdes are imagined with vivid sunshine and hints of possible beauty, but the villages are so rugged, so abandoned that it’s a miracle any life thrives here. Simo seamlessly blends the animated narrative with selections from the documentary. Buñuel eagerly wants to film a ritual where men on horseback tear the head off a hanging rooster. To get the right shot even after the event, he buys a rooster for a close-up and, after squeamish Ramon can’t do the deed, the man who sold them the bird does it himself. Simo cuts to the actual shot from Las Hurdes, and the effect is uncanny.
Later, Buñuel will go to any length to find provocative shots, from shooting mountain goats to give the impression of these otherwise sure-footed beasts falling from perilous cliffs, to unleashing a swarm of bees on a trapped donkey. Cruel? Indeed. But anyone who’s read Eleanor Coppola’s diaries of the making of Apocalypse Now is aware of the lengths to which an artist will go when crafting in a work an unforgiving landscape. The filmmaker can become as mad as the surroundings.
How surprising the way an animated film captures the rigors of shooting, from Buñuel waking everyone up at four in the morning to the personal impact of filming real life. The crew finds a little girl slumped over a road, suffering from an unknown illness, but there’s nothing they can do: doctors and hospitals do not exist in Las Hurdes.
But Simo doesn’t reduce Buñuel to a mere “mad genius.” More complex than your average animated character, he becomes a person for whom surrealism crystalizes his inner ghosts. When he goes to sleep his mind wanders into dreams where Dali-like elephants crush the boulevards around him, and the Virgin Mary will caress him as a boy even after he fondles her breasts. He will hallucinate in Garcia Marquez fashion with luminous yellow butterflies swarming on his window or from the donkey he puts out of its misery. Flashbacks to Buñuel’s childhood, taken from his autobiography, link these images to moments in his memories. His wealthy father makes little Luis stare at a dead horse whose carcass the vultures feast upon, or later the patriarch will appear with Dali’s own mustache to condemn Buñuel as a fraud. Burned experiences in the psyche, like a first brush with death or a broken friendship, then become part of the artist’s own private phantasmagoria. This goes to the heart of surrealism.
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles in animated form links how the Surrealist movement related to the real world. For its founder Andre Breton and its countless followers, surrealism offered a radically poetic interpretation of reality itself. By bending it and finding its burning, dreamlike core, reality becomes even more clear. Walter Benjamin, in his immortal essay on surrealism as a movement, described its spirit as this: “Life only seemed worth living where the threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away in everyone as by the steps of multitudinous images flooding back and forth.” For Benjamin, the surrealists’ great task was to combine the power of intoxication of the senses with revolutionary designs. In this sense, the surrealists, like the early anarchists, conceived a vision of freedom and transformation we are nowhere close to even achieving. And yet in the age of Trump and other all-too surreal horrors, if such a vision is not reached we may not survive.
In Simo’s film, Buñuel’s producer hopes this documentary won’t be mere art for its own sake, but a wakeup call to the viewing masses as to what Las Hurdes represents. The social collapse and vast inequalities captured in this valley will soon erupt in the fierce battles of the coming civil war. When the crew allow a group of almost deformed Hurdenos ride their automobile, victims of malnutrition and other ailments, it’s heartbreaking to see how they cannot conceive of a modern invention in a secluded pocket of backwardness. In another moment Buñuel films inside a family’s hut and Simo holds the frame on Buñuel and a shocked, then gagging Ramon. All we hear are the flies, and it dawns on us that a family actually lives here. The greatest scene may be one where Buñuel treats the death of an infant with the tenderness of a poet. The surrealist radical above all must have a heart, or else what is his fervent devotion to the cause for?
Even today Las Hurdes is a haunting document [the film can be seen in its entire below]. For years it was lumped on VHS and DVD releases with Un Chien Andalou as a sort of double bill. Even though, as with many documentaries even today, we are aware some of it has been arranged or staged (like the goats flying down cliffs), the essence of what it chronicles is undeniable. If Buñuel’s other films would obsessively hallucinate about desire, the hypocrisies of western civilization and how that civilization is actually quite deranged, Las Hurdes was his most naked vision of how the poor of the earth get by. When the writer Henry Miller saw L’age D’Or he was thunderstruck and wrote about the Spanish iconoclast. His words might be more fitting for Las Hurdes when he writes, “For Buñuel, like the miners of Asturias, is a man who flings dynamite…they have called Buñuel everything—traitor, anarchist, pervert, defamer, iconoclast. But lunatic they dare not call him.”
Now you may be wondering, is this still a review of a children’s movie? By a company called GKIDS? But you see, like the Japanese, Simo understands that animation is its own art form, capable of showing us anything and daring to enter aesthetic, dreamlike realms live action simply cannot conjure on its own. A previous film by this studio, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, adapted the Lebanese classic with a depth and maturity, combined with lush animation that shames most high-brow dramas. Smart younger viewers may be introduced via Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles to the idea that art can come from both our deeper selves and real world experiences. Buñuel scholars will marvel at how Simo condenses the key details of this episode of the master’s life into an hour and a half. We even get the moment Buñuel recounted endlessly about editing Las Hurdes at home over a table with a knife. Astoundingly, even his love of guns is somehow included in the narrative. In the real world people are complicated beings, not fairy tale characters. The very final moments of the film are heartbreaking in how the civil war would shatter the illusions of not only Buñuel but his entire generation.
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles will be rolling out around the country over the next month or so. It is a wondrous little discovery to make at your local arthouse venue. Graced with a wistful score by Arturo Cardelus, it is a story about how not only the surreal, but many works of profound meaning are borne out of experience bridging our world with that of dreams.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.