By Tim Jackson
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is nothing if not provocative fodder for a cinematic niche: the animated feature sheds intriguing light on one of the major film directors of the 20th century at a pivotal time in his career.
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, directed by Salvador Simó. Available on Blu-Ray on November 12.
In 1933, Luis Buñuel made a 30-minute documentary, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread), which explores the poverty among the Hurdanos people of Spain. It was the director’s only foray into nonfiction film. In it, views of the daily struggle endured by the inhabitants of this remote mountainous region give way to disturbing images that border on the surreal. Together with Salvador Dalí, he had previously directed Un Chien Andalou in 1929 and L’Age d’Or in 1930.
Why a documentary? Perhaps Buñuel saw this, paradoxically, as a way to secure his reputation as a provocateur, a celebrator of the irrational. In Las Hurdes he is on the hunt for troubling images: a child with her head in her hands is dying on the street as the camera moves in to examine her mouth, filled with rotting teeth; a goat falls from a cliff and the body becomes a source of food; a donkey carrying beehives across the mountains stumbles and is stung to death by the insects; a rooster’s head is pulled from its body in an effort to recreate a bizarre ritual. These are a few of the still disquieting moments in Las Hurdes, which offers no hope and advocates for nothing. Add a pretentious score and dispassionate, most likely unreliable, narration and you have an effort to mock the conventions and ethical boundaries of documentary filmmaking. If Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, the 1923 classic of ethnographic documentary, celebrates the nobility of man, Las Hurdes focuses on man’s ignobility. In his nonfiction films, Werner Herzog looks for an “Ecstatic Truth” or a “truth” beyond facts: “Only in this state of sublimity does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual.” Perhaps Buñuel wanted to draw on his surrealist impulse to arrive at a similar result.
Speculation about the director’s motives has now taken a powerful visual form. Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is an animated adaptation of Fermin Solis’s graphic novel of the same name, published by Astiberri Ediciones in 2009. It is the story of Buñuel’s quest to make Las Hurdes, and provides tantalizing speculation about what drove the director to complete the film. After the public’s shocked reception to L’Age d’Or, Buñuel feared he was not being taken seriously as a surrealist, given that Dalí’s reputation was already well established. When asked which ideas in the film were his and which were those of Dalí, Buñuel’s response reflects the anxiety of influence: “That is simple. They are all mine.” Shocked by the poverty of the Las Hurdes region, and anxious to boost his solo reputation, Buñuel felt compelled to complete another film and desperately sought financing, which was problematic given the project’s disturbing and politically sensitive subject matter. Financing was obtained when Bunuel’s friend Ramón Acín Aquilué won a lottery. Together with a small crew and a chaotic script, they journeyed to the mountainous area around the town of La Alberca, where the houses were so crammed together that the roofs appeared like a “labyrinth of turtles.” The film uses actual footage from Land Without Bread, along with animated recreations of the shooting process as well as Buñuel’s fevered dreams. Director Salvador Simó’s simple animation moves with ease into the fantastical, a strategy that suits Buñuel’s passion for surrealism. The director tested the patience of his crew and of financier Acín when, for the sake of his vision, he began to infringe on the privacy of the poorest people and to manipulate the facts.
Buñuel defends himself and his film by insisting that he needs to “push along” reality. The beheading of the rooster is staged; the goat cascading off a cliff was pushed by a pistol shot. At one point, Buñuel, dressed in a nun’s habit, inexplicably heads off to film with the camera crew. It was his habit to critique the Catholic Church — aside from that, the incident is left explained. What finally tests the limit of Acín’s patience: a dying child is filmed, and a man is paid to tip over his donkey so the animal well be swarmed by angry bees. Herzog again: “We must ask of reality: how important is it, really? And: how important, really, is the Factual? Of course, we can’t disregard the factual; it has normative power. But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges.” Was this Buñuel’s impulse — or was he exploiting the desperation of the Hurdanos for the sake of generating sensationalized images?
In her review collection Going Steady, film critic Pauline Kael asserts: “Buñuel is an outraged lover of man, a disenchanted idealist; he makes comedy of his own disgust.” Her description accurately describes the Buñuel depicted in Labyrinth of the Turtles. What were his motivations? To shed light on the dire poverty of the Hurdanos (an affront to Franco)? To create a dadaesque document or a mock documentary? To parody the haplessness of Christian morality? All of the above? Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is nothing if not provocative: the animated feature sheds intriguing light on one of the major film directors of the 20th century at a pivotal time in his career. It also raises questions about what it means to create a truly “subversive” nonfiction film.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.