'Buñuel In The Labyrinth Of The Turtles' Review: A Sensitive, Lyrical, Animated Love Letter To Surrealism

"How do you change the world?" It's a question posed to famous surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel by a group of intellectuals debating the merits of art or political action to combat the rising forces of fascism in Europe in the opening scene of Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles. Buñuel, inexplicably wearing a nun habit and a smug smile, doesn't answer. But he doesn't need to — his art is what speaks for him. In his lyrical animated film, director Salvador Simó also lets the art speak for itself, painting an earthy, dreamlike portrait of the surrealist filmmaker as he overcomes financial and personal challenges to shoot his 1933 documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan.

For a filmmaker as inscrutable as Luis Buñuel, the animated medium is the only one that can do him justice. The beauty of animation is in its limitless potential; more than simply a genre catered towards kids, as the medium is treated in the U.S., animation can make the imagination manifest — shocking images of looming, impossibly long-limbed elephants can appear minutes after Buñuel and his filmmaking team stroll through the dusty labyrinthine streets of La Alberca, a town in a region of Spain so impoverished that it feels lost in time. But in contrast to the provocative, almost cold images typical of surrealism, Simó injects a newfound sensitivity in Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, one that takes its titular ego-driven, narcissistic filmmaker to task.

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles begins on the eve of the release of Buñuel's L'Age d'Or, a scandalous satirical comedy film that skewered the Catholic Church and got the filmmaker banned from directing in France. Abandoned by his usual benefactors and spurned by his frequent collaborator and creative rival Salvador Dali, Buñuel loses hope at financing his next project: a documentary on the Las Hurdes region of Spain, one of the most impoverished areas of the country. On a drinking bender, he bemoans his current situation to his working-class anarchist friend Ramón Acín, who jokingly promises that if he wins the lottery, he will finance his next film. In a twist stranger than fiction (but fitting to the surrealist threads that are woven throughout this film), Ramón actually wins a hundred thousand pesetas, and gives Buñuel a portion to make his film.

Buñuel, Ramón, writer Pierre Unik, and Buñuel's cinematographer Eli Lotar embark on a strange, isolating journey through Las Hurdes, where it slowly becomes clear that the intense poverty in which its residents live isn't the most disturbing thing they will encounter. Rather, it's Buñuel and his relentless ambition to create his next masterpiece, as he manipulates the subjects of his documentary and orchestrates dramatic scenes that will play to bigger shocks in the theater.

Simó deftly communicates this discomfort with recurring cuts to shots from Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan, with the grain from the 1933 film sometimes lingering in the following animated shots as if to further blur the lines between the mediums. It's in this messy division between reality and dreams, between animation and live-action, that Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles truly feels like something special. The film doesn't lay down a definitive opinion of Buñuel — is he a genius or a hack? A world-changing storyteller or an exploiter? — but instead gives us deep dives into his psyche via increasingly bizarre dreams.

Throughout the film, Buñuel struggles with recurring nightmares of his childhood, each more brightly colored and unnerving than the last, which follow his estranged relationship with his father and his pursuit of his passion of filmmaking. In these flashbacks, Simó employs as much impenetrable imagery as that of the surrealists, with a recurring visual beat of a flock of gorgeous yellow butterflies symbolizing...something. Through these dreamlike interludes, Simó and co-writer Eligio R. Montero, adapting a graphic novel by Fermín Solís, seem to suggest an artist in turmoil. And indeed, Las Hurdes was a turning point in Buñuel's career as he pivoted from provocative surrealism of his early films to works that harnessed social realism.

But despite the surrealist flourishes and moments of stunning imagery, the animation itself is, funnily enough, the least inspired part of this film. The flat designs of the humans, all hard lines and broad expressions, clash with the warm reds, pinks, and magentas that bathe the backgrounds, while random bits of rotoscoped architecture serve to make the overall effect more disconcerting. The animation itself jitters strangely at parts, while gracefully flowing in others. But there is a purpose in this flatness — it recalls the bluesy isolation of Edward Hopper's famous Nighthawks painting; that feeling of urban ennui and loneliness that even bright, gaudy colors can't offset. The characters of Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles are devoid of the larger-than-life flourishes and stylings typical of an animated film — this is especially apparent in Jorge Usón's brusque, gravelly vocal performance as Buñuel — and they ground the film in the face of the surreal imagery that threatens to sweep them away.

Less a treatise on Buñuel's career, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles works more as a character drama as the filmmaker finds himself humbled by the extreme poverty and death that he witnesses while filming Las Hurdes. Buñuel, who frequently bristles at comparisons to Dali and impudently argues for his art, comes to La Alberca to make a statement by mocking other ethnographic filmmakers for fetishizing the hardships of people in faraway countries while people starve in their own country. But this creates a rift between Buñuel and the empathetic Ramón, whose own idealistic principles ironically makes him as eager to exploit the impoverished as those filmmakers Buñuel mocks. Their clashes, and the tolls that it takes on the production, are the closest Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles gets to being a love letter to the craft of filmmaking itself.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is currently showing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.