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EIFF 2019: Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2018)

N.B. This film is not on general release in the UK at present. It is showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th June 2019.

Buñuel’s controversial vision of an impoverished region

This animated docudrama chronicles the making of surrealist director Luis Buñuel’s documentary Las Hurdes (1933). It picks up in Paris during the release of his first feature-length film, L'Age d'Or (1930). The controversy surrounding its release caused it to be attacked by both the then-nascent fascists and the Roman Catholic Church alike, resulting in the director (voiced by Jorge Usón) being exiled from the Parisian film industry.

Now vilified by the authorities both in France and his native Spain, he nonetheless dreams of making a project focussing on the plight of the residents of what was the latter country’s poorest region, Las Hurdes. A stroke of luck finally arrives for him when Ramón Acín (voiced by Fernando Ramos), an anarchist friend from Buñuel’s home region of Aragon, wins the Christmas lottery.

He heads off to the region to make the documentary with Acín, assistant director Pierre Unik (voiced by Luis Enrique de Tomás) and cinematographer Eli Lothar (voiced by Cyril Corral). However, Acín begins to get frustrated with Buñuel’s speed with which he burns through the cash, his disregard for the safety of others and his tendency to heighten the drama by deliberately forcing the slaughter of a number of animals on-camera.

The film also features some flashbacks to Buñuel’s childhood in the town of Calanda as well as a few hallucinatory sequences referencing surreal visions in both his own work and that of his erstwhile collaborator, Salvador Dali.

Watch a trailer:

Imaginative but not sugar-coated

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles provides us with a fascinating look at one of the most inventive and idiosyncratic artists in Spanish cinematic history. Director Salvador Simó’s decision to tell the story in a cel-shaded animated format (albeit intercut with a few snippets of footage from the actual documentary itself) is a bold one but pays off very well in placing us within a truly imaginative mindset. This is most notable during two wonder-filled moments: firstly, a flashback to the director as a child, presenting a projected fantasy adventure in miniature with insects representing huge monsters and, secondly, a nightmarish walk down a Parisian street stalked by Dali’s huge elephants on stilts.

Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

At the same time, the film is far from Walt Disney and, while it celebrates some aspects of Buñuel’s contribution to the aesthetic world, it doesn’t sugarcoat the more controversial aspects of his behaviour. The scenes involving his treatment of animals (including a chicken, mountain goats and a donkey) are particularly harrowing as they both reveal his off-camera actions (such as firing a gun to scare goats off a cliff) and intercut them with the documentary footage of their actual deaths.

In fact, it’s some achievement that, despite Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles featuring such stomach-churning content, it still manages to be entertaining through its imagination, vividly-observed characters and even some occasional flashes of well-placed humour. Ultimately, it asks the question if the ultimate value of the art is worth the cost of getting there. While it doesn’t provide us with a definitive answer, it certainly offers much to the ongoing debate.

Runtime: 85 mins

Dir: Salvador Simó

Script: Eligio R. Montero, Salvador Simó

Voices: Jorge Usón, Fernando Ramos, Luis Enrique de Tomás, Cyril Corral

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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