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Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles review – animated odyssey

Here is an engaging if somewhat demure animation, bordering occasionally on a kind of gentle sentimentality that is inimical to the subject: it’s about the great director Luis Buñuel, though I suspect it’s more inspired by Pedro Almódovar.

Based on a graphic novel by Spanish artist Fermín Solís, this imaginatively reconstructs a great moment in Buñuel’s life. In 1933, as surrealism was considered by many artists an essential riposte to the bourgeois conformity that was enabling fascism, Buñuel boldly began work on a new film, entitled Land Without Bread – a supposed documentary about the desperately poor region of Las Hurdes in western Spain, whose wretchedness was blandly ignored by the central government.

Buñuel was able to make it because his friend, the anarchist Ramón Acín, had won the lottery and offered to put up the cash – an irresistible surrealist omen. The animation shows how Buñuel (voiced by Jorge Usón) and his colleagues journeyed into Las Hurdes villages, whose rooftops looked like turtle shells, and how Buñuel himself, with the ruthlessness (or unscrupulousness) of the born artist, started faking or staging the kind of spectacular moments he needed: goats falling off cliffs, donkeys attacked by bees.

Was he making a documentary with the earnest intention of helping the inhabitants? Or creating an amoral, self-serving spectacle of bizarreness, which would be of no help to the people of Las Hurdes? This is interspersed with clips from the black-and-white film itself (sound effects discreetly added), which inevitably looks fiercer, denser and punchier than the animation.

This film shows Buñuel offending the villagers by dressing as a nun, but gives no sense of the pure performative strangeness that must have emboldened him to behave like this. There are dreamy-surreal memory scenes of Buñuel’s childhood and his mother. These are very Almódovar. An interesting introduction to the original film.

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is available on BFI Player.

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