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Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2018)



Animated biopics are rare, but those in circulation tend to fare well with critics. From Persepolis (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008) to Loving Vincent (2017) and The Wind Rises (2013), films of this kind have awed viewers with their compelling narratives and imagery. Directed by Salvador Simó, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles was no exception to that rule. Adapted from a graphic novel by Fermín Solís, the film enjoyed a strong festival run before being acquired by its North American distributor, GKIDS, in 2018. A bold, moving portrait of the past, Buñuel was the first feature directed by Simó. Watch this film, and you will pray it was not his last.

Simó takes us to 1930s Spain, where real-world director and surrealist, Luis Buñuel, is struggling to survive. His most recent film, L’Age d’Or, has all but ended his career, spurned by the Vatican for its blasphemous content and themes. Buñuel’s financiers know that they face severe censure, and possible excommunication, if they continue to support him. The proud auteur thus finds himself completely bankrupt, transformed from celebrated artist into disgraced heretic with the wave of a hand. Fortune, however, is fickle. Just when all seems to be lost, a miraculous turn of luck offers Buñuel a second chance: one that will change his life forever.

The night of L’Age d’Or’s premiere, Buñuel is approached by Maurice Legendre, an anthropologist who introduces himself as someone who “also wants to change the world.” The altruistic Legendre admires Buñuel’s work and urges him to consider a documentary of Las Hurdes, the poorest region in Spain. Buñuel entertains the idea and shares it with his friend, Ramón Acín. Like Buñuel, Acín is a man of meager means. Unable to fund the documentary himself, he buys a lottery ticket and promises to produce the film if he wins. Sure enough, Acín does win, and with their four-man crew, the friends soon find themselves in Las Hurdes.

What they discover there is truly heartbreaking.

Las Hurdes is nothing like the rest of Spain. The locals live in crude homes, wear tattered rags, and in many cases suffer from physical deformity. Poverty abounds, and starvation has become so severe that hungry children lie down in the street to die; when Buñuel finds one such girl, her neighbors can only shrug their shoulders, helpless to feed or nurse her. It quickly becomes clear that this film will be unlike anything Buñuel has made. More than an art project, it has the potential to remove Las Hurdes from the shadows and give its people the food, love, and support they so desperately need. Acín is conscious of this reality and determined to help the Hurdians. Buñuel, on the other hand, struggles to commit.

There is a war going on in Buñuel’s mind. Once an admired director, he is determined to reclaim that image and outdo his artistic rival, Salvador Dalí. It is a dream so strong that it borders on obsession. Buñuel knows he is running out of time, and as he continues to film, it becomes increasingly unclear whether or not this project will satisfy his ambitions. He is, after all, a surrealist, and the grim, real-world suffering in Las Hurdes is a stark deviation from his brand. Troubled by this realization, Buñuel retreats into a fantasy world, wasting valuable time, money, and film as he devotes himself to strange side projects. All the while, visions haunt his sleep. Bizarre creatures visit him at night, their surreal menace an apt reflection of the auteur’s own, deluded selfishness. The more Buñuel strays from reality, the more these visions intensify. Even Death pays him a visit, clad in Hurdian clothes as he challenges Buñuel, one last time, to save the villagers.

Buñuel is deeply flawed, and Simó’s raw portrayal of the auteur is what makes this film compelling. Like any man, Buñuel struggles to make ethical choices, and his path to redemption is a costly one. He exhausts his crew, infuriates the Hurdian mayor, and, during a heated exchange with Acín, nearly loses his best friend. Fortunately, Simó’s story does not end there. Buñuel eventually wakes from his dream, roused by the unignorable suffering of the people around him. His plight, in many ways, appears to mirror that of the locals; while the Hurdians’ physical salvation depends on Buñuel, Buñuel’s spiritual salvation depends on the Hurdians. Their stories open him to a greater calling: one that values altruism over selfishness and humanity over the individual. Only by abandoning his own wants does Buñuel truly self-actualize, proving that his purpose--or, more broadly, the purpose of all men--lies in what he can do for others, rather than himself.

Buñuel brought hope to a forsaken people. By chronicling the artist’s life, Simó has become part of that legacy, exposing viewers to a story that is rarely discussed in the modern age. Far from just a cartoon, this film is intensely human, vulnerable in its storytelling and ruthless in its honesty. The crew’s encounter with a sick girl, Buñuel’s talk with a grieving mother, and one notably moving scene in a schoolhouse are all moments that feel as real as life itself. Bleeding hearts beware: this film packs an emotional punch, but it is a worthy addition to GKIDS’s catalogue, and its bittersweet conclusion is a telling lesson in love, friendship, and sacrifice.



IN A NUTSHELL:  A heartfelt biopic and touching tale of redemption.