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Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

An animated biopic with surrealist flourishes


From its first frames, the animated French/Spanish biopic Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles exudes confidence: a heated barroom conversation blares as shots of characters deep in discussion flicker between credits. The topic is art, specifically surrealism, and whether it matters. Someone asks the as-yet-unseen Buñuel his opinion, and as the animated “camera” pans to him dressed in full nun’s garb, the meta-surrealist tone if the film is set.

The following day is the 1930 Paris premiere of L’age d’Or, where Buñuel watches from the shadows as the audience erupts into a near-riot. Soon after, unable to parlay the film’s controversy into success, he sees his fortunes falter. Blacklisted in France and still unknown in Spain, he begins working on a new script inspired about the mountainous, poverty-stricken Las Hurdes region. When he miraculously secures funding via his old friend Ramón Acín (in a real-life turn of events that would be much too unbelievable for fiction), the film Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan is born.

The remainder of Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles follows the making of Tierra Sin Pan, with the stark, mountainous setting of the latter allowing the former plenty of leeway to explore experimentalism, surrealism, and symbolism. Tierra Sin Pan was itself an experiment, a “surrealist documentary” that confounded contemporary audiences, so it feels appropriate to see it documented in a likewise unconventional documentary. In a striking inversion, actual shots from Tierra Sin Pan appear while the camera is rolling, maintaining the overall sense of gravitas without sacrificing whimsy – and, in a fitting nod to a film about surrealist art, suggesting that films can be more real than life.

The crew’s meandering path through the mountains brings numerous encounters with nature that range from beautiful to brutal. The gentler moments, coupled with the film’s art style, recall Studio Ghibli films such as Spirited Away, while the harsher moments (particularly those that portray the abuse of animals) are hard to watch even in their animated versions. Buñuel, at least as portrayed, ranges in cruelty from abusive to simply indifferent, sacrificing his crew’s safety to get the perfect shot and ignoring Acín’s constant pleas to finish the shoot.

His relationship to the impoverished residents of Las Hurdes is more complex: though he coaxes, cajoles, and even pays them to partake in the film, there are moments where a genuine concern for their well-being emerges. While Labyrinth uses bold images and the extremity of its setting to explore the directorial process, it is ultimately about the relationship between Buñuel and Acín. The film poses numerous questions about filmmaking, ego, and the creative process but leaves them mostly unanswered, electing instead to stay in the shadows, like Buñuel at his own premiere, and let the images on the screen speak for themselves.

John Peck


Original title: Buñuel en el laberinto de las tortugas
Spanien/Niederlande 2018, 80 min
Genre: Animation, Biography
Director: Salvador Simó
Author: Eligio Montero, Salvador Simó
Montage: José Manuel Jiménez
Music: Arturo Cardelús
Distributor: Arsenal Filmverleih
FSK: 12
Release: 26.12.2019




  • OV Original version
  • OmU Original with German subtitles
  • OmeU Original with English subtitles
English/with English subtitles
All languages

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