Salvador Simó’s “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,” opening Friday at the Roxie, is a most unusual biopic.
Unlike most biopics, which often are financed as an easy way to nab Oscar nominations, it’s animated, and it’s in Spanish with English subtitles, so it won’t even be considered.
Secondly, it’s about a film director, an uncommon genre that includes only “Chaplin,” “Hitchcock,” “Ed Wood” and 2019’s “Pasolini.” (Orson Welles has been portrayed in “Cradle Will Rock” and “Me and Orson Welles,” but as a theater director.) Apparently film directors aren’t sexy, though Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) may pass muster.
A rebel if there ever was one, he was born in a small town in Spain and moved to Paris in his twenties, where, in 1929, he made the great 16-minute “Un Chien Andalou” with fellow surrealist Salvador Dali. The film is perhaps most infamous today for its “eyeball slicing” image.
Next came 1930’s “L’Age d’Or,” a feature-length masterpiece that caused a rift between Buñuel and Dali and created a career-ending scandal. It’s here that “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” begins.
Disgraced, Buñuel (voiced by Jorge Usón) can’t find work. Out drinking one night, an artist friend, Ramón Acín (voiced by Fernando Ramos), promises that if he wins the lottery, he will finance Buñuel’s next film.
Weirdly, that comes to pass. So they set off to make what would become Buñuel’s third movie, the 28-minute 1933 documentary “Las Hurdes,” or “Land Without Bread” (which can be streamed on YouTube).
The production heads to Las Hurdes, a poor village in a mountainous region of Spain. Initially proclaiming his intention to present raw reality, Buñuel turns out to be more interested in his old surrealist methods, and attempts to shock audiences awake. He stages a few sequences of animal cruelty, including snapping a chicken’s head, knocking a goat off a cliff and allowing a burro to be devoured by angry bees.
Acín vocally disagrees with Buñuel’s methods, while simultaneously pulling out his hair as the film goes over schedule and over budget.
Based on a 2009 Spanish-language graphic novel by Fermín Solís, “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’” animation feels chunky, even as the artwork is vividly expressive.
Simó, who directed and co-wrote, includes clips of the actual black-and-white documentary as if to illustrate the footage the animated Buñuel has just shot; despite the differences in look and style, this conceit works.
Wisely, Simó also digs deep into Buñuel’s artist psyche, exploring memories, inner torments and visualizing his nightmares.
Buñuel finally begins to see his subjects in a more humane way; whether or not this actually happened, the realization is timely, and wonderfully touching.
In real life, after “Las Hurdes,” Buñuel had a two-decade stretch of unremarkable films before making the landmark “Los Olvidados,” another attempt at social realism with surrealist touches, in 1950. That led to late-career masterpieces including “Viridiana,” “The Exterminating Angel,” “Belle de Jour” and the Oscar-winning “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”
“Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” doesn’t touch on those movies. It ends with a reminder that the 1930s were difficult, and that art of the sort created by Buñuel and his cohorts could be considered a threat.
It’s doubtful that “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” will push many buttons or cause outrage. But with a little luck, it will introduce more viewers to the deep, subversive pleasures of Buñuel’s films.
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles
Three and a half stars
Starring: Voices of Jorge Usón, Fernando Ramos, Luis Enrique de Tomás, Cyril Corral
Written by: Eligio Montero, Salvador Simó
Directed by: Salvador Simó
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes