“Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” may be the ultimate in niche appeal: an animated behind-the-camera account of how the great Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel came to make his 1933 documentary short, “Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread,” about an impoverished region of his country.
Who’s the audience for this?
Well, me and about five other movie junkies at the crossroads of history and art. Maybe you, too, even if your knowledge of Buñuel stops with the slashed eyeball of “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), still one of the most shocking images in all cinema. “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” doesn’t set out to shock — although it includes some moments that may bring you up short — so much as turn one of the movies’ Great Men back into a cartoon human being.
Based on a graphic novel, the film dramatizes the story of a young artistic firebrand — a creative bomb-thrower — learning to temper his vision and artistic approach with humility. Director Salvador Simó drops us into the immediate aftermath of the theater riot at the 1930 premiere of “L’Age D’Or,” Buñuel’s scandalous, anti-clerical surrealist collaboration (of sorts) with Salvador Dali. Luis in this telling is a prankster (he likes to dress up as a nun) with a healthy ego (he assures a fan that the ideas are all his, not Dali’s), who’s nonetheless intrigued when an acquaintance suggests he go to Extremadura, a region in western Spain, to document the hardships there.
Forbidden in the wake of “L’Age D’Or” to film in Paris — according to this movie, the pope himself weighed in on the matter — and denied funding by Dali and others, Buñuel (voiced by Jorge Usón) stalks off to Extremadura in a huff, vowing to shoot “the most miserable, forgotten place in the world” and “make them pay attention.”
On one level, “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” sticks to a time-tested what-else-can-go-wrong tale of a troubled movie shoot, interweaving clips from the real “Las Hurdes” as celluloid grace notes. Buñuel’s main backer is an old friend, Ramon Acin (Fernando Ramos), an earnest fellow leftist who is literally funding the documentary with his lottery winnings. Confronted with the abject destitution of the region’s people and a way of life that seems stalled in medievalism, Luis retreats to his shock tactics, playing up the freakishness of the locals and restaging some of their crueler traditions for the camera.
Specifically, Buñuel strong-arms his camera crew, against their wishes, to film the gruesome beheading of a chicken, and he re-creates the death by bee-swarm of an unlucky donkey. To get a shot of goats falling off the tortuous mountain paths, he shoots them. The film’s attitude toward this seems stuck between horror and backhanded admiration. Luis isn’t a monster, he just goes too far, and that’s what artists do. (Fine, but tell that to the goats.)
The film’s visual look, overseen by animation director Manuel Galiana, is blocky and straightforward, within the French cartooning tradition of Jacques Tardi and others. The strongest moments are the flashbacks to the hero’s repressive childhood, the occasional dream sequence (surrealist, of course), and Buñuel’s slow-dawning realization that nothing he does to offend the filmgoing bourgeoisie can carry the weight of simply photographing the suffering of real people. That suffering encompasses more than the peasants of Extremadura, as a postscript informs us of the fate of some of the characters during the Franco era.
“Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” assumes we know that the filmmaker would go on to make “Belle de Jour” (1967), “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972), and many other masterpieces of subversion and wit; what it doesn’t make you want to do, curiously, is rush out to see “Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread” (which is impossible, anyway, as the film’s not available in any format in this country). It’s a curio for the completist, but not an unworthy one.
BUÑUEL IN THE LABYRINTH OF THE TURTLES
Directed by Salvador Simó. Written by Salvador Simó and Eligio R. Montero, based on a graphic novel by Fermin Solís. With the voices of Jorge Usón and Fernando Ramos. At Kendall Square. In Spanish, with subtitles. 80 minutes. Unrated (animal cruelty).