Sophisticated chatter about the purpose of artistic expression ushers in Salvador Simó’s “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,” a genius and layered animated drama that functions as both a revelatory making-of for a seminal 1933 non-fiction film, and a surrealist biopic about the director behind it, who’s tormented by a yearning for his stern father’s approval.
Simó and co-writer Eligio R. Montero find Luis Buñuel (voiced by Jorge Usón), the expat Spanish auteur whose best-known films were made in France and Mexico, fresh off the success and controversy of the groundbreaking “Un Chien Andalou” and “L’Age d’Or,” both of which he co-wrote with the equally iconoclastic Salvador Dalí. Already regarded as a provocateur critical of the Catholic Church, Buñuel was branded persona non grata at home, which hindered his efforts to get another movie financed.
Asymmetrical in its facial features, the 2D animated rendering of the master filmmaker is more graphic interpretation than faithful portrait, perfect to cruise between reality and the anxiety-fueled nightmares that besiege his sleep. The bizarre dreams blend his childhood memories as a boy in Calanda, Spain, with twisted and symbolic scenes ranging from his mother embodying the Virgin Mary to giant elephants with elongated legs hovering over Paris. The cold presence of his unemotional, if maybe not entirely unloving, father roams his mind like a threatening ghost eager to punish.
Stuck at a creative crossroads and utterly broke, Buñuel, then in his early 30s, takes an offer from French writer Pierre Unik (Luis Enrique de Tomás) to make a documentary project observing how people live in the remote and marginally impoverished region of Las Hurdes, where barbaric traditions are still upheld and children die of easily curable illnesses and malnutrition. Shooting is set in motion when close friend Ramón Acín (Fernando Ramos) uses lottery winnings to pay for the risky movie.
Those opening conversations on whether art should aim to change the world, begin to echo loudly when questions about Buñuel’s ethics arise. Obsessed with making “Las Hurdes” (known in English as “Land Without Bread”) a defining work that would distance him from Dalí, with whom he had a major rift, the stubborn storyteller is willing to violently and grotesquely manipulate situations to milk the town for all its brutal misery.
The writing duo’s screenplay doesn’t exalt his unscrupulous behavior, but instead presents it as the self-centered antics of someone exploiting the suffering of others for personal gain. This glimpse at the director’s realization of his own moral depths on the road to artistic maturity gives us a flesh-and-blood person still detached from the aura of grandeur he would later attain. Sometimes selfish and other times genuinely compassionate, this complicated character is deconstructed, becoming compelling on screen because of his dramatic arc and not only because we know he is “the” Luis Buñuel.
In animation, Simó finds the ideal canvas, one that allows him to recount the most gruesome instances of strenuous filmmaking in more palatable form while also ingeniously enlivening the surreal sequences with glorious hand-drawn work. Buñuel would likely endorse it, since animation is immune to any and all constraints imposed by the real world. The mental labyrinth in which he’s lost comes alive with such unabashed pictorial liberty to express odd subconscious impressions that it’s inevitably directly in conversation with Dalí’s animated short “Destino.” Those strange but insightful products of Buñuel’s fears and imagination differ heavily from the warm and bright yellow light in his waking realm.
Cutting between the animated behind-the-scenes and the actual live-action, documentary footage in the final cut validates the veracity of Simó’s renditions, but it also shocks with the accuracy with which it conveys the circumstances of this severely neglected population. Thematically and in approach, “Las Hurdes” calls to mind Buñuel’s masterpiece focused on street children in Mexico City, “The Young and the Damned” (“Los Olvidados”), more than any of his irreverent examinations of the bourgeoisie, and Simó’s consciously complex feature provides context for the venerated director’s interest in the underprivileged.
Designed to depict harshness with animated humanity, Simó’s artful frames are coated in composer Arturo Cardelús’ timeless melodies. His near-celestial music invokes Yann Tiersen and Alexandre Desplat with the addition of a divine choir. One of the most unforgettable scores to accompany a release of any kind this year, Cardelús’ notes are at their most efficacious in nostalgia-filled remembrances, like when young Buñuel receives a Magic Lantern projector and showcases his innate narrative inclinations. A faint smile from dad is like a drop of water for the love-thirsty boy.
Underlying Buñuel’s more intellectually skewed concerns, there’s a universally relatable one: his friendship with Ramón. Blinded by the light of his ego, the relentless moviemaker ignores the sacrifices made by his trusted producer and brother-in-shooting. Later, the credits reveal historical facts pertinent to Ramón’s invaluable commitment not only to his comrade’s art but also to justice in general. Aside from being a boundary-pushing delicacy in adult animation, what makes “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” more than a mere homage to one of the most essential creators of the 20th century is that it pokes at the façade of the eccentric visionary who would later dress as a nun, both to infuriate and in order to unpeel the earthly wounds that feed his elevated oeuvre.