MIFF Review: Buñuel In The Labyrinth of Turtles

MIFF 2019 Bunuel In The Labyrinth of Turtles

MIFF’s animation program always highlights the best and brightest of international animated features, and this year is no exception. Among this year’s selection is Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, detailing the production of filmmaker and notable Surrealist, Luis Buñuel’s 1933 documentary “Las Hurdes” in Extremadura; a western Spanish region bordering Portugal. The title comes from a scene in the film where, while shooting across the rooftops of a rundown village, Buñuel’s cameramen comments that the roofs look like the ridges of a turtle’s shell. Over the course of the film, Buñuel himself becomes “lost” in this labyrinth of turtles. 

The film is essentially the journey of Buñuel’s character from self-serving surrealist provocateur to an empathetic figure touched by the poverty of his surroundings. The lynchpin for this transformation is Buñuel’s poet friend, Ramon Acin, who comes on as producer of Las Hurdes, bankrolling the project. The concept of documentary becomes questionable in Buñuel’s zealous hands; instead of filming an accurate representation of Extremadura he imposes his willpower on the subjects and landscape, shooting goats to have them “fall” off the mountains and employing a villager to twist the head off of a chicken for shock value. Acin is Buñuel’s moral compass in the film, taking away the camera following a moment of Buñuelian excess; dressing as a Nun and insulting the local villagers. By the film’s end Buñuel, following a protracted transformation, finds himself fighting to keep his moral guide’s name in the documentary’s credits. 

The animation style is simplistic and functional, as is the character design, but they serve to reinforce the earthy, grounded tone of the film. The colour scheme is rich and pastorally hued without ever overwhelming the visuals. Buñuel’s many dream sequences allow for the film’s most impressive spectacles, with an array of golden butterflies, skeletal legged elephants and stylized peasants filling the screen with dynamic movement. It is perhaps disappointing for a film whose title promises whimsy and surrealist excess that we focus on the more socially urgent concerns of Las Hurdes, but the film remains engaging nonetheless.

The pacing is stately, but it serves Buñuel’s nascent awareness of the villagers’ suffering and the eventual equilibrium of his relationship with Acin. While it might have been effective if the filmmakers had built more urgency around the plot, this low key quality is in keeping the social realist tenor of the film, and furthermore, with the stifling atmosphere of the impoverished countryside that Buñuel explores. Turtles’ strongest quality is the consistency it employs across its visuals, storytelling and production.

MIFF’s animation program continues to be one of the strongest across Australia’s film festivals, and Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, with its consistency in style and vibrant colour scheme and design, is a worthy addition to that roster. The film fits that mould of gentle, languidly paced anime and arthouse fare, so fans of Phantom Boy or In this Corner of the World will find themselves right at home with it. Just like Buñuel, those who enter the film’s labyrinth will be lastingly altered by it.    

Bunuel In The Labyrinth of Turtles is showing at Melbourne International Film Festival, 1 - 18th August. For more information and session times visit the festival website or click here.