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March 6, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Underappreciated Gems | March 6, 2008 |

Guillermo Del Toro is an odd bird: while he is equally comfortable making films in either English or Spanish, there is a noticeable difference in tone and scale depending on which language he is working in. His American English-language releases skew towards the loud, big-bang action movies (Blade II, Hellboy, Mimic), while his Spanish-language films (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) tend to be more like intricate, subtle adult fairy tales.

Such is the case with Cronos, his first full-length film. Filmed in Mexico in 1993, it was quietly released to substantial critical acclaim, winning a number of Mexican film awards, but going largely unnoticed outside of the indie theater crowd in the U.S. This neglect is a shame, because it really is a remarkable film. It’s another of those strange, otherworldly fairy tales like Pan’s Labyrinth - stories for adults who are looking to be unsettled, perhaps be a little frightened, and who haven’t lost their sense of wonder.

Cronos tells the tale of Jesus Gris (Frederico Luppi), an elderly antiques dealer in Mexico. Gris is a gentle man with an adorable moppet of a granddaughter named Aurora (Tamara Shanath), who he carries around on his shoulders and generally dotes on. It’s a bit of a contrivance, this idea of the kindly old man and the sweet little child, but it’s one that’s necessary to the story. The film opens with a voiceover telling us about an alchemist in the 16th century who built a device called “The Cronos device,” which is somehow capable of granting its user eternal life. After centuries, the device (which resembles a small, gold insect) makes its way to Gris’ antique shop, where he discovers it hidden in the base of a statue. Needless to say, his curiosity gets the better of him, and the device bites him. And from there, things take a turn for the weird.

What follows is a bizarre story of eternal life, vampirism, greed, family dynamics, love and violence. Shortly after Gris is bitten, he begins to notice changes in himself — he’s healing quickly, he appears to be getting younger-looking, and he’s suddenly more fascinated with raw meat and blood than he’d like to be. While these changes are overcoming him, Aurora is silently and nervously observing him. At the same time, a sickly businessman named De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), whose lifelong quest has been to find the device to cure his disease, catches wind of Gris’ discovery, and dispatches his brutish yet clever nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to obtain it.

The film is a strange confluence of ideas that turn many conventional mythologies on their heads — the very idea that vampirism is caused by a mechanical bug (powered by an actual bug captured inside, by the way) is fascinating and fantastical. Given that vampire movies tend to fall into two categories these days — either the gothic, Interview With the Vampire type of overwrought rouge-and-lace piece, or the leather clad, gun-toting ass-kickery of Blade or (God forbid) Underworld — it’s refreshing to see something that takes the mythos and makes something wholly new and interesting with it. The word “vampire” is never uttered, nor should it be, because at its heart this is a movie about power and redemption; the vampire idea is simply the means of delivering the message. As a result, there are none of the other stereotypical physical “vampire” changes that result from the Cronos device’s effects — no aversion to crosses, no super strength and certainly no scenes of supernatural Aikido that we saw in Del Toro’s far more frenzied, hyper-violent vampire film, Blade II. It takes the concept of the vampire movie and breaks it down completely, with superb results.

In fact, one of those contrary ideas that make the film so engaging is the two opposing main characters, Gris and De La Guardia. I can’t think of another film in this genre where the protagonist and antagonist is a pair of elderly men. One of the unique consequences of this choice is that, for the most part, their battle is mostly a battle of wills. De La Guardia understands the full powers of the Cronos bug, and seeks it to cure his cancer-ridden body by using it in compliance with the ancient texts he has uncovered. Claudio Brook plays De La Guardia as a tightly-wound, desperate old man. Faced with the prospect of dying slowly and painfully, he has ironically abandoned his humanity in an effort to regain his life. This sense of sinister desperation plays perfectly off of the soft-spoken performance of Frederico Luppi. Gris, distrustful of De La Guardia’s intentions and slowly becoming addicted to the device’s effects, is willing to do almost anything to prevent him from getting it, despite the fact that he has no idea what the device truly is, where it came from, or what it’s fully capable of. Luppi’s performance as a kindly old man, confused yet intrigued by the changes to his body and soul, is a beautiful piece of subtle acting. I can’t help but think that the conscious choice to have to older actors in the main roles lends a sort of distinguished credence to such a bizarre fable. In fact, one of the things that make Cronos so riveting is the idea that the battle for immortality won’t be fought by the beautiful people. It won’t be fought by passionate, self-absorbed youngsters traversing the world seeking a fountain of youth. Instead, the old, the frail, the decrepit and the dying, will stumble across it and fight desperately to keep it; after all, who will benefit from eternal life more than those who are so close to slipping from mortality’s grasp?

Another piece that keeps the film interesting is that each of these main combatants, if one could call a charming elderly antiques dealer and a sickly, Howard Hughes-like shut-in “combatants,” has an unusual choice of henchman. De La Guardia has his nephew, Angel, who serves as his confidant, his whipping boy, and his agent to the outside world. Ron Perlman has long been a favorite of mine, and he’s obviously a favorite of Del Toro’s as well, seeing as how this is the first of four Del Toro movies that he’s been a part of (culminating with the starring role in the Hellboy franchise). He is marvelous to watch here, playing a strange combination of loutish thug and foppish dandy. He’s obviously cast as the heavy, and is used by his uncle to do the dirty work, yet he struts around in pinstripe suits and turtlenecks, obsessing about getting a nose job, whining to his uncle when he fails at a given task. At the same time, Gris’ sidekick is the plucky little Aurora. Tamara Shanath, who plays Aurora, delivers a truly stunning performance in this. Once again Del Toro demonstrates his ability to effectively write parts for children, and then subsequently coax wonderful performances out of them. Perhaps what makes it so impressive is that, for the most part, she doesn’t speak in the film. Whether this is because she is a mute or simply an introvert is never addressed, which to be honest, I kind of liked. As a result, she conveys a wealth of emotional responses simply through her expressions and subtle little movements. As a testament to both her ability and Del Toro’s directing, she manages to make the audience not just understand, but empathize with her, through sparse, childish motions like hiding behind a curtain, or shifting nervously in her seat, or forlornly resting her face in her hands. Aurora serves as Gris’ moral compass for the film - it’s her concerned and innocent gaze that sets him on the path to redemption when the effects of the Cronos device begin to overtake him. And when it forces him into more grotesque endeavors, she bravely stays with him, more afraid of losing her grandfather than she is of what he is becoming. Gris’ anguish over the more macabre effects of the Cronos device are conveyed in some truly unsettling scenes — if you’ve ever wanted to watch an old man lick the refuse from someone’s bloody nose off a bathroom floor, this is the movie for you.

Taken as a part of Del Toro’s history, Cronos is an interesting study in the evolution of a filmmaker. It shares many of the common themes that would go on to make their way into most of his works — a fascination with time and timepieces, using children as a moral compass, insects, and Ron Perlman — yet is distinct from his other films in it’s attachment to the real world. As strange as it may sound, considering we’re talking about a movie about a bug that turns an old man into a vampire, it’s perhaps his most grounded film and it works well within the boundaries it sets for itself. The sense of the supernatural is far more implied than overt, even when Gris’ transformation takes a turn for the worse, with none of the effects-laden gimmickry that sometimes interferes with his films. It’s a film about a supernatural device that grants immortality, and yet it has few special effects, relying instead on atmosphere and performance to convey its theme.

Cronos is a story of our tenuous grasp on mortality, and the sad truths regarding our fears of death. It’s not a horror movie; it’s not an action movie. In fact, its slow pace is almost incongruous with its subject matter. Del Toro’s deft, restrained direction, coupled with several brilliant performances, makes Cronos a film worth a closer look. While it lacks the whiz-bang of his American movies, and is perhaps not as fully developed as his later Spanish works, it is still a lovely film that succeeds in being moving and disturbing, charming yet unnerving — everything a good fairy tale needs to be.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him wasting his time at Uncooked Meat.

Pajiba's Underappreciated Gems

The Devil in Mexico

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Underappreciated Gems | March 6, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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