Film & TV

Luis Buñuel’s Political Films Defy Categorization

Salvador Simó’s Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (Sygnatia/The Glow/Submarine/Canal Extremadura TV/Aragon TV/IMDb)
A terrific new animated film explains the secrets of surrealism.

Finally, a serious animated film and a political one at that: Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, by Spanish animator Salvador Simó, is the most straightforward artist’s bio-pic made this century. It opens up the complex personality of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, using two-dimensional, cut-out images that give its narrative surprising clarity. Children could enjoy watching the story as an ever-changing fable, but adults will get more out of its depiction of multifaceted political art.

Buñuel was a prominent figure in the early-20th-century surrealist-art movement, which means he was a somewhat avowed anarchist. Simó introduces Buñuel during a soirée where colleagues discuss their philosophies: “Art is about changing laws,” “It’s about making people think,” or “It’s mental masturbation.” Imagine Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris done right, without trite celebrity name-dropping but pinpointing a significant cultural and political moment: It is the 1930 premiere of Buñuel’s first masterpiece, L’Âge d’Or, a truly great movie that changed the use of cinema and forced audiences to have new perceptions of a then-young art form.

Simó recaptures some of that freshness. Animation prevents actorly eccentricity from coloring the ambivalent motivations of Popular Front partisans who, just before the Spanish Civil War, desire political change (“It’s good to have a coup now and then”) but who are also devoted to expressing their personal urges. (In the most Buñuelian moment, the dashing young artist sees himself as the bald septuagenarian we remember.) Buñuel reacts to his privileged background — not against it. He challenges Church and State precepts while seeking his father’s approval and fulfilling his creative drive.

His follow-up to L’Âge d’Or is a documentary project — Land without Bread — about Spain’s impoverished Las Hurdes region, a former bastion of the Carmelite order that Buñuel treats as a symbol of deprivation that must be remedied. Buñuel and his bohemian friends embark on an adventure wilder and more challenging than any Pixar find-your-way-home formula. In the mountainous Las Hurdes, where the pattern of scaled-roof hovels resembles a tortoise shell, Buñuel reports the destitution, scarcity, and cruel rituals of impoverished man at his most basic. Young husbands decapitate roosters, donkeys used to export honeycombs are prey to bees, goats that fall off mountain edges are used for meat — and no one ever sings. Real-life surrealism.

We see Buñuel arrange a lot of this anthropology, using his pistol to kill a goat so his cameraman can capture the “accident.” Land without Bread could be the first mockumentary, but Simó lets Buñuel’s politicized art project reflect on the history of such legendary liberal conceits as James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s celebrated combination of poetry and photography, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in which affluent liberals express their sympathy for the oppressed. Yet Buñuel, one of the sharpest intellects in cinema history, is pitiless. Scenes of Las Hurdes’s schoolkids, orphans being raised simply to receive government subsidy, show them learning rote sociology: “Respect your neighbor’s property,” an irony more startling than the sympathizing of Luchino Visconti’s magnificent working-class ode La Terra Trema (1948).

No conventional portrayal of Buñuel’s political life (as seen in 2008’s Little Ashes) could offer the same complexity as this cartoon, which balances his vanity and his empathy (clamoring, adoring schoolchildren cling to Buñuel for his spiffiness and obvious affection, unaware of his ruthless ambition). Simó appreciates how art and politics mix in film culture and that tough-minded Buñuel evaded easy categorization. (Contemporary Hollywood hipsters such as Adam McKay simply pretend anarchy in The Big Short and the petty, appalling Vice.)

Critics routinely cite Buñuel’s atheism, pigeonholing Buñuel as a Marxist, but his best films are great — dizzying — because they outfox political dogma. Simó understands how Buñuel’s Catholic background — his humanist sensitivity — always informed his political critique and his satire, whether the sociological Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned, 1950) or the psychological Belle de Jour (1968). To craft a cartoon about the making of Land without Bread so that, in this context, interspersed clips immortalize these peasants’ lives once again — that’s a project worthy of Buñuel’s impish genius.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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