Luis Buñuel is easily the most important surrealist in cinema history. You could also say he was one of the early pioneers of the true-in-spirit hybrid-documentary. Just like his previous films, the 27-minute Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan or Land Without Bread immediately stirred controversy and was duly banned for years. Truth and artistic license jostle each other while witnessing the depths of Spanish poverty in Salvador Simo Busom’s animated making-of feature, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, which opens today in New York, courtesy of GKIDS.
When Buñuel started developing the documentary that would become Land Without Bread, his reputation as a filmmaker essentially rested on two films, Un Chien Andalou, the short film that commenced his collaboration with Salvador Dali and L’Age d’Or, the hour-long satire that pointedly ended it. Both works generated explosive outrage as well as reverence within avant-garde circles. There are frequent references to Buñuel’s frosty relationship with Dali throughout the film, but the psychological influence of his distant and domineering father will be more significant.
Despite his baggage, Buñuel can be charming, at least at this early stage of his career, but also maddening. Just ask his anarchist friend, Ramón Acín Aquilué, who jokingly promised to fund Buñuel’s proposed documentary exposing the desperate living conditions in the Las Hurdes region—and kept his word when it came to pass. However, Acín was most definitely not made of money, which inevitably led to conflict with the not-so practical auteur.
Although most of the film is animated, Simo periodically inserts archival footage from Land Without Bread, cutting back and forth to show us what was happening on both sides of the camera. The way he and editor Jose Manuel Jimenez marry the two styles of footage together is enormously clever and visually striking.
Clearly, Simo has a great deal of sympathy for Buñuel, but the film is not a starry-eyed exercise in hagiography. Instead, he provides a complete portrait of the artist, including his tendencies to be a bit of a user and a flake. Even though Simo takes us pretty extensively into Buñuel’s head, it is still hard to decide what to make of him. Look, geniuses are complicated.
Regardless, Labyrinth of the Turtles (a reference to Las Hurdes’ tortoise shell-like roofs) is an entertaining and erudite primer on Buñuel’s early development as an artist. Simo’s animation is quite elegant, in a style befitting the 1930s, but he mixes in some wild, Freudian flights of fancy that are quite in keeping with the Buñuelian spirit.