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Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles
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by Jay Seaver

"Seldom quite so provocative or surreal as its subject."
3 stars

There seems to have been an uptick in biographical graphic novels in recent years, and the idea of films taking the same sort of approach to biographies is tantalizing. Animation has the unique ability to recreate a subject's appearance and movement without seeming like an imitation, and is able to emphasize and exaggerate in ways that may seem phony in live-action. Filmmaker Salvador Simo Busom's film about Luis Buñuel getting one of his own movies made had the right idea, even if the actual picture can use some refinement.

It opens as Buñuel's second film, L'Age d'Or, is just about to open in Paris. Though many of his fellow filmmakers find it a surrealist masterpiece, others are more interested in how Dali was an influence, and it is reviled by mainstream audiences, to the point where it is impossible for Buñuel (voice of Jorge Usón) to find financing for another. An old friend from back home, Ramón Acín Aquilué (voice of Fernando Ramos), impulsively buys a lottery ticket and offers to finance and produce a film if he wins. When the ticket does pay off, they are off to Las Hurdes, a desperately poor region of Spain, to document the region with cinematographer Eli Lota (voice of Cyril Corral), who originally brought the project to Buñuel's attention, and Pierre Unik (voice of Luis Enrique de Tomás), an assistant director and camera operator who has worked on Buñuel's previous films. Ramón will soon find that there is a great deal of difference between admiring an audacious genius and managing one.

The conflict between Luis and Ramón will often drive the story, emphasizing that it is often a bad idea to go into business with a friend, and that the "suits" who are often decried as standing in an artist's way are often creative people themselves, doing their best to make sure that the project eventually winds up in some sort of complete form. It's a familiar-enough refrain that the specifics of this project become more interesting: There is something kind of fascinating about the idea of a surrealist trying to make a documentary, with Buñuel trying to mold the story and force the more outrageous elements to the fore even if it makes the film less of a true depiction of what would have happened the day he filmed it had he not been there, even as the reality is affecting him. Simo Busom, arguably doing the same thing himself, doesn't come down hard on either side but plays with the question.

The film often diverts from that in order to play on how this particular filmmaker was a demanding artist forever trying to prove himself to his dead father, which is a more-than-familiar narrative, but one which does allow Simo Busom some diversions, whether into Buñuel's dreams or his memories of creating his first magic lantern shows. The film often pokes at what the ways in which Buñuel was a unique person but tends to assume that the audience knows the general shape of his life with this a lesser-known chapter that mostly needs to be fleshed-out for the audience. Even with that; there are still pieces that could use a little more attention; focusing on Buñuel also means that the way that the film emphasizes Ramón's later life and death during the end credits seems to sidetrack the film in its last moments - this is important enough to be the thing the filmmakers want you thinking about as you leave the theater, but not so much that they spent much time on it during the film.

Meanwhile, the very animation used to make this film seems especially conventional, a throwback to television animation of a previous era. It's often an effective choice - it allows them to show Las Hurdes as stark while still showing off the geographic features that give this film its name, with less excess detail and motion than one would expect from a movie that is obviously entirely digital, and there is more color in the early Parisian scenes, when Buñuel is riding high. As mentioned above, it allows Buñuel himself to be instantly recognizable without focusing on the actor's imitation. It is in some ways disappointing that the filmmakers seldom push to do things in animation that couldn't be done in live-action, either to create images that Buñuel would have but for more resources or to get inside his head beyond a few dream sequences. This may be deliberate, to avoid competing with the bits of Buñuel's work that are incorporated in the film; viewers who have not seen those films themselves will still be able to see them as impactful rather that quaint here even if they are not necessarily that person's taste in general.

(It should be noted that the filmmakers also do not use the animation as a way to minimize or abstract animal cruelty, cutting to live-action the times Buñuel and company kill a rooster, a goat, and a donkey in order to create close-up shots they couldn't get otherwise. The filmmakers also don't spend a whole lot of time on the hypocrisy of Buñuel feeling these are legitimate things to do for art to present what he calls barbarity.)

There are moments in "Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles" when one sees the great potential of telling a life story in this manner, and others which excite by the nature of the story being told, but they are not always the same ones. It is nevertheless an intriguing film that fits a fair amount of food for thought into its 80 minutes, and makes one hope that the animated biography will become more popular.

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originally posted: 10/05/19 03:51:28
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