Animated film imagines the making of the famed surrealist’s controversial “documentary” LAND WITHOUT BREAD

Sometimes history has a curious sense of humor.

Reeling from the failure of his film L’Age D’or and the resulting cultural and commercial backlash, surrealist and filmmaker Luis Buñuel tries in vain to get another project off the ground. His friend Ramón Acín promises that if he wins the lottery, he’ll finance Buñuel’s next film.

Incredibly, Acín did win — and kept his promise.

Salvador Simó’s animated film Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (Buñuel en el laberinto de las tortugas, based on the graphic novel of the same name) explores this unlikely bit of true history and the unlikely bit of false history that was created as a result.

The pair grab a couple of their filmmaker pals and head to remote mountainous region Las Hurdes of western Spain, documenting the extreme poverty and creating the film which will become the controversial pseudo-documentary Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread),which has come to be criticized for its many abuses, taking advantage of the plight of the local populace for entertainment and creating completely false narratives about the region under the guise of a factual documentary.

Art and history may debate over Bunuel’s intentions and whether the film is actually a pack of lies or something more along the lines of a mockumentary or artistic statement, or even simply a really bad documentary, but what’s clear is the impact: Las Hurdes was globally humiliated and thereafter synonymous with poverty and squalor in the eyes of the world.

Labyrinth takes a straightforward approach to these happenings, showing these characters at both their best (supporting each other and sometimes showing compassion to locals) and their most awful. Donkeys in particular were in danger whenever Buñuel was around. One was smeared in honey and killed by inciting bees to sting it to death. At least one more was shot and dropped off a cliff to depict it “falling” from the dangerous terrain. Both of these incidents were staged, at the cost of animal life, for Buñuel’s own absurd and completely made up narratives for the film.

At times the movie cuts over to the real live action footage of Land Without Bread, tying together the animated telling and the historical lens.

The cantankerous and complicated Buñuel in particular is depicted as a frustrated artist, whose unpredictable antics and mood swings sometimes enrage his long-suffering friends (who are disgusted in particular by the bees incident). If anything I think the film is probably a little too kind to Buñuel, reminding us of his tortured spirit and daddy issues.

Strangely, the film seems to reserve any direct judgments on both Buñuel and Land Without Bread, handing that over to the audience to ruminate.

Fascinatingly, the 88-year-old controversy around Land Without Bread has never been more relevant than now, in the age of social media. Facebook and Youtube are full of phony philanthropists who love to share videos of their staged “good deeds” while taking advantage of those in need, such as the homeless, to cultivate goodwill-driven clicks and shares (and their accompanying ad revenue).

The Package

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory and Gkids. Gkids’ eclectic curation of world cinema and adult animation continues to impress, and also to make us wonder why they still cling to the name Gkids.

The Blu-ray combo package also includes a DVD, and my copy came with a slipcover. The film is not rated, but is roughly PG-13 material. Spanish with English subtitles.

Special Features and Extras

  • Buñuel’s Prisoners (72:59) aka The Prisoners of Buñuel

The Dutch documentary De gevangenen van Buñuel (2000) serves as a perfect companion piece to Simó’s film. Mirroring Buñuel’s journey almost 70 years later, filmmaker Ramon Gieling takes a documentary crew to Las Hurdes (now a more modern and bustling village) to observe how Buñuel and his film impacted the community, interviewing many residents — a few of whom were old enough to remember Buñuel and his visit.

In what may be a subtly brilliant bit of meta-commentary, an early scene depicts the filmmakers meeting the Mayor of Las Hurdes upon arriving into town. He’s shown looking out the window, cutting his POV of the filmmakers’ van as it approaches (an impossibility), and in their initial greeting a line is flubbed, cutting immediately to a corrected take which reveals that the shot is, or has become, staged. Of course they didn’t need to leave the flubbed line in the film’s final edit, but rather chose to do so — this segment serves as an implicit acknowledgment that even the most well-intentioned documentary has some veneer of fabrication, achieved through both staging and editing.

The filmmaker’s visit to Las Hurdes culminates with a public screening of Land Without Bread in the town square, to a grim looking audience who is doubtlessly pained and angered by the depictions and descriptions.

Both Buñuel and his film elicit strong responses from the interviewees, most of whom feel it unfairly vilified the region, permanently staining its reputation. Many dismiss the film as outright lies or mockery, while others concede that it mostly rings true despite its many exaggerations and imaginings.

The presentation is a bit rough in quality with burned-in subtitles, and the framing is goofed. It was obviously originally matted on 4:3 SD but then blown up and matted on 1080p, but without removing the prior matte — in other words, you’ll see black bars on all 4 sides regardless of what aspect ratio screen you view this on.

  • Interview with the Director: Salvador Simó (10:23)

Simó discusses the film’s conception and creation with thoughts on the process. One thing he shares that stood out to me; the film was “shot” similar to a live action movie with the cast physically acting out scenes together, not just sitting in a booth and performing to microphones.

  • Trailers (5:32)
    Original Trailer (2:13), US Teaser (1:08), and US Trailer (2:10)

A/V Out.

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Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles — Blu-ray

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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