Gkids is a New York based film distributor that represents Japan’s famous Studio Ghibli with such family-friendly animation features as My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) as well as more adult oriented titles like the harrowing WW2 survival tale Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and the Oscar-nominated Chico & Rita (2010), a passionate love story set in pre-revolution Cuba. Salvador Simo’s Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, one of Gkid’s recent acquisitions, belongs in the latter category and is currently playing selected theaters in the U.S. with an iTunes streaming release in the near future.
I happened to see the film at a 3 pm matinee at the Plaza Theater and was the only person in the audience. As much as I love the idea of a private screening, it was disappointing to see so little support for what is clearly one of the most unique and fascinating animated films of the year.
Based on Fermin Solis’s graphic novel, Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles focuses on a rarely examined period in the Spanish director’s film career when he was shuttling back and forward between Paris and Madrid and planning his next film after the scandalous reception of L’Age d’Or (1930), his second and final collaboration with Salvador Dali. When his proposal to make a film version of Wuthering Heights fails to find any financial backers, Bunuel comes up with an even less commercial proposition – a documentary – that was inspired by Maurice Legendre’s doctoral study of Las Hurdes, a remote and backward area of Spain. (In case you’re wondering about the film’s peculiar title, it comes from the look of the stone roofs of peasant houses in that forlorn region which resemble turtle shells.)
Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is a mostly factual account that follows how the director got the funds for the film (his friend Ramon Acin won the lottery and donated 20,000 pesetes for production) through the actual shoot which took place between April 23 and May 22, 1933. Accompanied by a three-man crew, which included Acin, Sanchez Ventura and cameraman Eli Lotar, Bunuel arrives in Las Hurdes with some preconceived ideas of what he wants to shoot. In the course of the filming, he feels it is necessary to stage or invent some incidents for the camera for editorial purposes but the extreme poverty, disease, inbreeding and inhospitable terrain of the region is all too real and resulted in Las Hurdes being banned in Spain after completion. It was seen as “dishonourable for Spain and a denigration of the Spanish people” (stated by Bunuel in an interview). Bunuel’s intention was to create a sense of outrage that would pressure Spain’s Fascist government to take steps to remedy the situation in Las Hurdes. Over time, Bunuel’s film would be instrumental in bringing aid and positive change to the region.
If you are familiar with Bunuel’s work, you probably know that Las Hurdes was retitled Terre sans Pain (Land Without Bread) because hardly anyone outside of Spain was familiar with the Las Hurdes region and because Land Without Bread was a more vivid description of the film’s content. Although it was filmed as a silent, Bunuel later added a voice-over narration and a music score utilizing Brahm’s Fourth Symphony. Although it isn’t mandatory that you see the original documentary before viewing Simo’s animated account, it certainly makes for an absorbing comparison between what is on the screen and what was really going on behind the scenes.
Simo actually incorporates some of the more disturbing footage from Land Without Bread into Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles and the effect is not at all jarring or distracting, but a harmonious blending of two mediums (traditional 2D animation with black and white newsreel clips). The film’s muted color palette of earth tones is also entirely appropriate for a story set in the past with most of it taking place in a desolate setting.
The most compelling aspect of Simo’s movie is the central figure – Bunuel. This is essentially a character-driven drama and the result is a vivid portrait of the artist as a young man at a turning point in his life. Bunuel comes across as arrogant, determined and mercurial but he’s also an extraordinary visionary artist and outspoken critic of fascism and religious hypocrisy. Simo may take artistic license in a few sequences that are open to speculation such as Bunuel’s relationship to his stern father and various dreams and phobias (Was he really frightened of roosters? Did he have hallucinations about hordes of golden butterflies?). But he also infuses the animated narrative with the sort of imagery that reflected Bunuel’s lifelong fascination with insects, animals and death.
There are some major revelations in Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles for admirers of the director which are quite disturbing and new to me. In the director’s autobiography, My Last Sigh, he discusses the filming of Land Without Bread but never mentions the scenes that he staged, three of which involve animal deaths. The first one takes place at a wedding celebration in the village of La Alberca where the men participate in a ritual that involves yanking off the heads off of live chickens, hung upside down, while they gallop beneath them on horses. In order to get a close-up of this inhumane practice, Bunuel hires a street vendor to do the deed since he and his crew are too squeamish to do it.
Even more upsetting is the scene where we observe wild mountain goats grazing amongst the cliffs and rocky mountain terrain and one falls to his death after being shot on camera by Bunuel (Yes, this really happened and if you see Land Without Bread, you can see the smoke from the pistol enter the frame as the goat is hit). Just as heartless is the sequence where a donkey carrying two beehives on his back is stung to death by the bees when the hives tumble off onto the road. Apparently the donkey had been tethered to a rock by his owner and was unable to escape. Most sources confirm that when the owner didn’t return, Bunuel shot the donkey to put an end to his suffering.
This is no denying the power of these sequences in the documentary and in Simo’s re-imaginings but to kill animals in the name of art or for a film is reprehensible. Of course, this was reflective of its era when there was no such thing as animal rights or any official laws to protect them from this kind of cruelty. Other scenes which Bunuel staged in the documentary include the river burial of a dead baby (faked) and a scene involving a despondent sick girl in the street whom the narrator tells us died later (she didn’t).
In some ways, Land Without Bread can be seen as an early template for the infamous Mondo movies that became a trend after the success of 1962’s Mondo Cane. These so-called documentaries often featured staged scenes in their examination of primitive rites and cultures and animal deaths were a frequent occurrence. Unfortunately the shock value proved to be a major lure for audiences.
Obviously Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is not for children but, despite the often grim subject matter, Simo’s film is not heavy-handed. It has a lightness of touch with unexpected moments of humor such as a scene where some raggedy peasant kids are given a high speed joyride in Bunuel’s Fiat. The interactions between Bunuel and his three man crew are often comical as well with the director making difficult demands and encountering bewilderment and resistance, especially in the case of his investor Acin, who becomes increasingly anxious as Bunuel burns through his production budget.
A final note: The movie’s 80 minute running time is just right because it leaves you wanting to know more and ends with Bunuel completing his documentary. A postscript fills the viewer in on how Land Without Bread was received and its eventual fate but more importantly it serves as a tribute to Ramon Acin, a known anarchist who was captured and killed with his wife by Fascist forces shortly after the film’s completion. Thanks to his money and support, Bunuel was able to complete Land Without Bread, which is now considered the final film in an unofficial surrealist trilogy that includes Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930). Later in his career when he was more financially solvent, Bunuel repaid his debt to Acin’s two surviving daughters.
Salvador Simo is already at work on his next animated feature, tentatively titled Dragonkeeper, and it promises to be as unconventional as his Bunuel project. For more information about Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, visit the official website at https://gkids.com/films/bunuel-in-the-labyrinth-of-the-turtles/.
Other websites of interest: