By Yun-hua Chen.
Salvodor Simó, the layout artist for Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017), The Jungle Book (2016) and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), collaborated with the scriptwriter Eligio R. Montero and adapted Fermín Solís’ graphic novel on the true story of how Luis Buñuel made his third film, Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread, 1933). Interweaving animation portraying the making of Las Hurdes in the remote und impoverished region of Spain, animated dream spheres of Buñuel and live-action footage from the actual documentary Las Hurdes, Simó’s Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is an entertaining animation film for adults and especially enthusiasts of anecdotes about the film history.
After Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), which ignited a scandal within the conservative Catholic circle in Paris, Buñuel was unofficially banned from the Parisian film industry and had a difficult time acquiring funding for his third film. While he came across a book about the Extremadura community Las Hurdes, Ramón Acin, his painter friend and an outspoken anarchist activist, promised to fund his film if he won the lottery. With a surreal twist, Ramón Acin did win the lottery and kept his promise. They thus embarked upon a roller coaster ride which was at the same time an anthropological field trip, a film expedition and a probing into the core question, what is a “surreal documentary”?
At that time, Hurdanos lived in poverty, malnourished without modern medicine, very much in isolation from the rest of Spain and with a large proportion of disabled children born out of incestual relationships as a result. The presence of Buñuel, Ramón, the voice-over scripter Pierre Unik and the cinematographer Eli Lotar was almost extraterrestrial in their eyes and incited curiosity; midway through the film we see a group of Hurdanos jump on their car and ask for a ride in exchange for Buñuel’s filming. Buñuel, on the other hand, used their curiosity towards the film crew and the local administrator’s desire to improve life through exposure to dramatize events and create images by his will in the vein of Surrealism. Another scene portrays how Buñuel ties a donkey next to a bee hive and then hits the hive with a piece of wood. Through the intercutting between Simó’s animated recreation of behind-the-scenes and Buñuel’s documentary footage, we see how Buñuel lets his camera observe the donkey suffering from stings by hordes of bees and braying in pain. When a swarm of bees surrounds the donkey’s turbid eye, it is no longer the make-believe eye-cutting scene in Un Chien Andalou. Rather, it reflects a time when the artist’s pursuit of a grotesque kind of beauty overrides animal rights under the pretext of “changing the world” through art.
Like an attempt to keep in line with the spirit of surrealism, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles drifts in and out of Buñuel’s dreams and childhood memories, which are indistinguishable from each other. In one of those dreamy moments, the child Buñuel encounters Virgin Mary with the face of his mother, who guides him to open the door to a giraffe’s belly in which roosters reside. And there is a conversation between an older version of Buñuel with the personification of death; the scene of the stung-to-death donkey wanders to a surrealist scene of Buñuel being held by his father to look at vultures devouring a donkey. In fact, most of these sequences are related to Buñuel’s father complex, but they tend to stay at a rather simplistic and pseudo-psychological level. Using a medium that is best fitted for some moments of surrealism, Simó paradoxically opts for linearity, narrative clarity and well-defined boundaries between dream and reality.
Coming exclusively from Buñuel’s perspective, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles focuses on the artist’s obsession with giving this region a voice, and that is, Buñuel’s voice, while treating the Hurdanos as the Other, exactly like in Las Hurdes. The conflict between Rámon and Buñuel over Buñuel’s fabricated scenes is a debate about what a documentary is in the context of surrealism, how reality should be rendered on screen and how filmmakers should position themselves in an underprivileged area; Buñuel’s dramatization of misery and local customs contrasts with Ramón’s insistence on portraying reality without interference. Here, Simó reproduced Buñuel’s fabrication of “reality” with a touch of humor. After Buñuel creates the scene of tumbling goats by firing a firearm, he brings the goats back to the villagers and tells them in a cartoonish manner, “They all fell on their own.” At the close of Buñuel’s shooting of an infants’ funeral along the river with grieving relatives, the mother picks the baby up from its coffin and walks away. In a black comical manner, Simó portrays how Hurdanos became mere actors subject to Buñuel’s whim (apart from one occasion when Buñuel interrupts the shooting upon seeing an ill girl lying on the street) and animals were no more than props. As a matter of fact, the filmmaking process is more surreal than Las Hurdes’s confrontational transgressiveness that Buñuel attempts to achieve.
In this respect, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles is a self-conscious piece of representation. Arturo Cardelú’s score flows in soothingly and empathetically. Animated images are lively and unpretentious while vividly capturing Buñuel and Ramón’s verve and demeanor – whose friendship commemorates a bygone era in the film history.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.