For those of us who were raised on lighthearted boy-and-his-dog/girl-and-her-horse films and cuddly Disney forest creatures, our first sight of a lion taking down a young gazelle on a TV series like Nature is likely to be a terrible shock. How cruel! Well, not exactly. The lion needs to live, too, and nature has seen fit to equip her with the ability to sprint, claw, and bite; the gazelle has speed and endurance to help level the playing field, so generally only the young or the old gazelles are eaten, leaving the healthiest and most sexually mature animals to continue the species.
Human beings are animals, too, and exhibit all the same bestial instincts to mate, tend to our young, flee from danger, and so on. However, human beings also have advanced thinking capabilities that can overcome our basic survival instincts; consider the sacrifices people make, even unto death, to help others. Nonetheless, in many ways, the way we arrange our social structures reveals the beast in us, particularly in our hierarchical pecking orders that depend inordinately upon those at the top to govern our human affairs wisely and embrace our advanced thinking abilities to care for all members of the society.
After Lucia, winner of the Un Certain Regard and Silver Hugo awards at Cannes and Chicago, respectively, takes a grim look at the workings of a pecking order among a group of teens from a prosperous area of Mexico City and how an infraction of the group’s rules leads to rapidly escalating, unconscionable bullying. Many American critics have found the severity of the hazing unbelievable, but I believe this reaction reflects the American tendency to draw a curtain quickly around unpleasant truths, develop positively spun marketing campaigns to pretend that something is being done, and then go back to business as usual. Mexicans appear to have more of an appetite for the lurid and an unblinkered acceptance of darkness in the world, with a particular appreciation for the animalistic underpinnings of human existence. The unflinching approach Michel Franco takes to machismo and human conflict, the plight of the vulnerable, and the archetypal pairing of sex and death makes After Lucia something of a horror masterpiece.
Alejandra (Tessa Ía) is an ordinary teenager from privileged circumstances who is dealing with the death of her mother in a car accident from which she escaped unharmed. Her father Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) wears his grief like sack cloth; in the opening scene, he very carefully drives the repaired car away from the mechanic’s after listening to what sounds like a rebuild rather than a repair and then simply abandons the car in the middle of the road and walks out of his life in Puerto Vallarta to start over with Alejandra somewhere else. Roberto, a chef, struggles to stay focused enough to open a new restaurant; when he walks out on the enterprise at one point, it is Ale who takes charge and makes him go back and get on with it. Almost miraculously, Ale has been brought into the cool-kid clique at her new school by its alpha male, José (Gonzalo Vega Sisto), and seems to be getting along just fine.
Unfortunately, Ale makes a fatal error when she is invited to a weekend party at a posh home. She gets drunk and lets José record them having sex on his cellphone. The video circulates online, arousing the jealousy of the girl who thinks José is her boyfriend. Soon, the taunting emails and physical abuse begin, the boys calling her a whore and exposing themselves to her, and the girls dressing her up like a hooker and cutting her hair off. She doesn’t tell her father or the school authorities about what is happening to her. She just disappears into the shell of her own misery and eventually, just disappears during a mandatory school trip to Vera Cruz.
After Lucia explores some very interesting aspects of human behavior, in general, and the social order of teens, in particular. It seems that Ale understands well the tendency of teens to attack the weak rather than to show understanding. For example, she is careful not to reveal too much about her background, saying only that her mother is back in Puerto when her new friends wonder if her parents will go ballistic when they find out she has failed a mandatory drug test at school. She is a person who contains her emotions by nature, but she also doesn’t want to be seen as having any defect, and having only one parent would pose a status problem for her. She hides the abuse she is suffering not only to keep her father’s fragile equilibrium and, more important, temper under control, but also to prevent the abuse from getting worse. When it can’t get any worse, she goes into an emotional coma, uncaring about what happens to her father or her tormenters. We want her to lash out, be sensible, but a young ego is extremely delicate and the centers of reason have not yet matured.
The horror aspects of the story have to do with punishment for having sex. Ale becomes the target for bullies, it seems, for sleeping with another girl’s boyfriend, but it really isn’t as simple as all that. Her tormenters focus on her sexual conduct and use sexual and physical humiliation to punish her for losing control. It is never revealed who sent the video around, as the cellphone was left in the bathroom for anyone to pick up, but suspicion rightly falls on José, who can prove his machismo, attack the girl who lays a claim to him he doesn’t want, and humiliate the new girl he brought into the group in the first place. It is even possible he befriended her with this ulterior motive in mind. One only has to think of the torment and murder of the character of Juanita, a newcomer to Cuidad Juárez, in Backyard (2009) to see a familiar dynamic at play. The disposability of strangers, the acceptance of brutality against women that women collude in to maintain the pecking order, and the fragility of the male ego, which demands violent retribution, all come into play in After Lucia. The film, particularly the last scene, is very reminiscent of the feral behavior and shockingly matter-of-fact violence captured so heartbreakingly by Luis Buñuel in his 1950 classic Los Olvidados.
The film shows a fine attention to detail and expert use of indirect narrative to communicate the events of the story. That first scene, which only hints at the tragic death of Lucia, comes graphically into focus as Ale remembers the details as she swims obsessively to relieve her stress. Conversations occur in the distance, out of earshot, leaving us helpless in the foreground to imagine whatever plot, or horrors, we like. The cinematography of Chuy Chávez takes in the beauty and modernity of this set of people, contrasting the savagery that emerges from it without the pressures of physical survival that make comparison by some with Lord of the Flies erroneous. Although many commentaries focus on how difficult this film is to watch, I actually found Franco’s style discreet, offering enough distance to allow me to view the film to the end and, therefore, see the full realization of his vision. Much more difficult was taking in the incompletely suppressed emotions Ía and Mendoza express with their brave, committed performances.
People who see After Lucia may use it to start a dialogue about bullying and the need for open communication between parents and children. I think that’s just fine. But this is no afterschool special. The issues it raises go to the very heart of the psychic minefield of sex and the human pecking order, as well as the depths of depravity and violence to which the id unchecked by human reason can sink. After Lucia will shake you up and never let go.
Radio commentator Peralta (Joaquín Cosio) tells his listeners in the greater Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua-El Paso, Texas area the facts about their home. It is the site of 60,000 legal border crossings a day as goods and cheap labor head north to American markets and American boys go south looking to lose their virginity among “our world-famous sex workers.” Ciudad Juárez also is a mecca for the poorest of the poor looking for work in the factories of the multinational companies that find costs quite reasonable; some will make a bid to cross into the United States when the border guards aren’t looking.
To Mexicans and many people around the world interested in human rights, Ciudad Juárez is notorious for its large number of unsolved kidnapping-rape-murders of women—many of them factory workers—numbering more than 1,000 over more than a decade. Keep that number in mind—I’ll get back to it.
The dead women of Ciudad Juárez have been the inspiration for works of art, museum exhibits and lectures, magazine and newspaper articles, a Jennifer Lopez film (2006’s Bordertown), and much, much speculation about serial killers, conspiracies, and sex rings. Now we have Backyard, the film Mexico has chosen as its entry for the 2009 Oscars, that seeks to provide both a narrower and broader perspective on why the women of Ciudad Juárez are dying.
Ciudad Juárez is welcoming two new women—Blanca Bravo (Ana de la Reguera), a police detective transferring from Veracruz, and Juanita Sanchez (Asur Zagada), an 18-year-old country girl leaving her back-breaking farm work for a freer, more exciting life in the city. Bravo is investigating a murder—a preserved body of a young woman who has been found in the desert with her nipple torn off. She has a gold tooth with the letter “K” stamped in it. Two women who work for a women’s aid organization recognize it as belonging to a woman named Karen, a domestic-abuse victim. Karen’s boyfriend, an Egyptian nicknamed the Sultan (Sayed Badreya), has a record for rape in the United States. Bravo brings him in and suspects that he is a serial killer. Eight more dead women are found in the desert while he is in custody; a case is made linking him to the Cheros gang that runs a nightclub in town where Juanita, called Juana, likes to party on Saturday night. But the aid workers have presented Bravo with hundreds of photos and stories of screams in the night every full moon.
Back to Juana. The minute we saw her get off the bus carrying her cardboard boxes of belongings, we knew she’d end up among the mourned of Ciudad Juárez. After moving in with her sweet cousin Márgara (Amorita Rasgada), who gets her a job at the factory, she hooks up with a traditional young man from near her hometown in Chiapas. The two converse in their native Indian language, but Juana wants to forget her country roots. The young man goes to the nightclub to meet her, only to find her dancing with someone else. Several men incite him to avenge this humiliation. He drugs her, and the men take her to an abandoned outbuilding, where, much to the young man’s horror, they all rape her and force him at gunpoint to put a plastic bag over her head. She is dumped like a sack of garbage from their van in a scene of unmitigated brutality.
Filling out the stories of these two women are the dirty dealings of the police commander (Alejandro Calva), who only wants to get a desk job in Mexico City, and the governor of Chihuahua (Enoc Leaño), who makes a large show of force to get the story about the murders out of the pages of the New York Times. Convening a task force to brainstorm ways to make the city safer for women, he brings the ideas to Texan and Japanese industrialists with factories in Ciudad Juárez. The two categorically refuse to offer financial assistance to install better lighting or hire more police officers, and actually threaten to take their business elsewhere, where labor is under the $1.08 an hour the Mexican workers earn. Lastly, we are thrown a story of Mickey Santos (Jimmy Smits), a rich Mexican who lives in El Paso and comes to Ciudad Juárez on every full moon to indulge his taste in school girls.
This film really sounds stuffed with plot threads, but they are handled fairly economically and help director Carrera paint a picture of this community that goes beyond the bogeyman horrors with which it has come to be associated. The fact is that because of a lack of resources and political will, it has become easy to get away with killing women in Ciudad Juárez, and so they continue to die. As Bravo learns, so do we—there is no serial killer or sex ring per se, just the usual femicide with more publicity. This is an important message of this grave film, and Carrera emphasizes this as a worldwide problem not only by bringing the Egyptian into the story, but also by flashing statistics of sex-related murders of women in various other Mexican cities, in South American countries, and ending with the stats for New York City—more than 3,200 dead.
The film is not entirely successful, however. Throwing in Smits’ character and then letting Bravo pump him full of lead was done to relieve the audience of its frustration and perhaps send them home without really taking the message of the film to heart. While Carrera, who attended the screening, said this film was not made to entertain, this and other touches—particularly the attractive lady detective in the Law & Order mold—are right out of the Hollywood play book. Other reviews I’ve read of this film critique it as a thriller and underplay or ignore its message—a rather chilling commentary on how even the most hideous violence against women has so completely infiltrated the entertainment industry. Looking at this aspect of the film and today’s trends and comparing them with my commentary on I Spit on Your Grave and A Question of Silence, which has become a hot topic again this week on a certain feminist site I frequent, leaves me in despair. We really haven’t confronted the issues I identified in that essay, and if anything, we’ve actually taken a step back.
Carrera mentioned that about 150 of the 1,000 cases have been solved, but that the killings continue. “We have a problem with machismo in our culture,” he said, “though things have gotten better, a little at a time.” That’s it, of course. When women are treated as fully human and not targeted simply for the crime of being female, we will finally solve the problem we seem to see only in Ciudad Juárez.
Is it an exercise in futility to review short films, either animated or live action? Outside of film festivals, the chances of seeing any short films is slim to none—that is, if you’re thinking about standard film venues.
Of course, the fortunes of short films have never been better. We may never get those cartoons before the feature films anymore, but I’d argue that short films are more numerous and internationally available than any other type of film. The Internet has made distribution a reality for both fledgling filmmakers who want to go on to full-length films and veterans of the short form who have been producing high-quality work for decades. Animation specifically has exploded with the advent of affordable desktop technology and multitudes of media schools like Flashpoint, “The Academy of Media Arts and Sciences,” which is a sponsor of the CIFF and where I viewed screeners for the festival on wide screens using the best set of headphones I’m ever likely to clamp over my ears.
It’s important for cinephiles to support short films as the proving ground for the great filmmakers and innovators of tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed watching our very own Jonathan Lapper of Cinema Styles master the short form and get the interest and opinions of cinephiles around the globe. I don’t know if the traditional movie industry will ever truly embrace short films as they once did, but through virtual film festivals, websites, and various social networking venues, film fans will once again be able to experience the unique pleasure of the short stories of cinema.
Ferdy on Films, etc. is considering making short-film reviews part of our regular fare. We’d like your opinions on this possible new direction. Email us or comment here.
And now, reviews of the 11 short animated films that comprise Shorts 2: Animation Nations.
Hot Dog (2008) Director: Bill Plympton
The latest in Plympton’s “Dog” series—Guard Dog and Guide Dog being his previous efforts—has our erstwhile hound deciding to join the fire department. After a brush-off from the fire chief, Dog chases (as dogs do) a fire truck, manages literally to hop aboard, somehow ends up driving the truck to the site of a burning building, and saves a damsel in distress. Of course, Dog fouls it up in the end, but not before Plympton creates classic cartoon animation that stretches the limits of the physical world and takes us inside Dog’s mind with visual balloons of great hilarity. I’m not always fond of Plympton’s animations, but his Dog series is a real winner and the type of cartoon short I’d love to see at the front of a feature film if that practice ever returns to the cinema.
Hot Dog trailer
The Black Cabinet (2007) Director: Christine Rebet
Using a flickering, mainly static-image style, Christine Rebet very obliquely comments on complacency in a dangerous world. The aristocratic roulette players in the bottom half of the frame applaud with amusement at a puppet made to dance for their amusement, a scene that replays again and again. I was reminded of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, as disaster of the aristocrats’ making seems inevitable. I thought the illustrations were quite interesting, but there was little to suggest to viewers a “story,” and I found myself unpleasantly puzzled until the last frames of the film.
Kizi Mizi (2007) Director: Mariusz Wilczyński
This crudely drawn animation by a well-known Polish animator, framed to suit the proportions of each scene and shot with intentional blurs, depicts a noirish love triangle between two cats who love the same mouse. The mouse loves only one of the cats, but the cat travels frequently; in her loneliness, the mouse repeatedly plays a tape of Fleetwood Mac’s “Need Your Love So Bad”. She eventually succumbs to the seductions of another. If you can picture a cat and a mouse French-kissing, you’ll understand how distastefully weird this film can be. But it is important to keep in mind that the story is introduced in the credits as a bedtime story. When we return to the world outside the story, a delightful surprise awaits us. If you have the patience to wait out the repetitiveness of this overlong short, you might end up with a laugh at the end.
Procrastination (2007) Director: John Kelly
This short discusses what the director/illustrator is feeling as he tries to get to work. Perhaps the favorite of the audience, the narration provides examples with which we all can identify, and the animation style is, in a word, cool. I managed to find the entire film on YouTube. See for yourself.
Trepan Hole (2008) Director: Andy Cahill
An inventive stop-motion animation that doesn’t have a narrative, Cahill’s short film plays with form as two ropey creatures move in and out of holes and tweak each other in a style the reminded me of some of Plympton’s transforming heads. Since the word “trepan” usually refers to holes drilled into skulls as an primitive treatment for mental illness, the creatures suggest “The Hearse Song” (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, The worms play pinochle on your snout…”). Trepan Hole doesn’t mean anything—it’s just fun to watch.
Stand Up (2008) Director: Joseph Pierce
An angry film, Stand Up shows a stand-up comedian introduced as John J. Jones, everyone’s favorite everyman, bomb in front of an audience when he starts to insult them and dwell on serious topics. Pierce does a wonderful job of taking an initially warm audience and slowly turning them sour. He shows the bitterness behind every clown, eventually having Jones strip naked before storming off the stage. The black-and-white illustrations are grotesque and fluid. This is a short drama that goes for the jugular.
John and Karen (2007) Director: Matthew Walker
This trifle has a polar bear apologize to his angry penguin girlfriend for criticizing her swimming speed and the size of the fish she catches. There’s not much to this short film, though I liked the line, “So you don’t catch whales. Nor do you need to!” The illustration style is clean, sweet, children’s book material.
Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight (2007) Director: Felix Massie
The opening dialogue by voiceover narrator Scott Johnson is, “This is Keith Reynolds, and today is promotion day. Having worked at the company eight years, he is the most senior Junior Business Analyst in the building. He’s been waiting for this day for a very long time.” My favorite short of this series, the idea for Keith Reynolds came from the years British animator Massie spent in the corporate world. The insanity of the passed-over middle manager has been filmed before, but the animation makes it simultaneously more funny and more serious as the figures have a crash-test dummy quality to them. I’d love to have this film in my private collection.
Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight clip
Lavatory – Lovestory (2007) Director: Konstantin Bronzit
This touching short film from Russia tells the story of a lavatory attendant with a secret admirer. The woman who watches over and cleans the men’s lavatory collects the coins the men drop in an empty mayonnaise jar at a turnstile she guards. As she reads a newspaper called “Happy Women,” she looks longingly at pictures of women who have a loving man encircling them. When she puts down the newspaper, she finds a bunch of flowers in her jar. Much puzzlement and craziness ensues as she keeps throwing the flowers out, only to have them replaced. The ending is sweet and satisfying. But do lavatories in Russia really have opposite-sex attendants? That’s something to mull.
Lavatory – Lovestory in full (9:39 minutes)
Out of Control (Fuera de control, 2008) Director: Sofia Carillo
Honestly, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this stop-motion animation from Mexico. The CIFF program says, “A chain reaction upsets the balance of a bizarre cycle.” OK, that sounds good to me, though I really didn’t see any cycle going before it got broken. The film has a deathlike quality and a very organic look. I liked the visuals even though that’s all I could appreciate in the noisy, but wordless, short film.
Lies (Lögner) Director: Jonas Odell
This strong, disturbing documentary from Sweden uses live-action animation to tell three stories of lies and deceitful lives—one of a burglar who managed to fool security guards at an office building and steal checks and merchandise, a young boy who confessed to a crime he didn’t commit and who then went on to become a thief, and a gypsy who was told by her mother never to reveal her true ethnicity and who bounced around the foster care system and became a drug addict. I found that this film from a young, but already celebrated, director, had an interesting and appropriate visual style—linear, mechanistic, muted in color. Because it uses interviews with the subjects themselves, the film is very dialogue-heavy and laden with subtitles, and that made actually watching the film difficult. Still, Lies is a compelling short. I couldn’t get this clip to download, but maybe you can.
In his excellent autobiography, My Last Sigh, Luis Buñuel said, “When I was younger, my so-called conscience forbade me to entertain certain images—like fratricide, for instance, or incest. I’d tell myself these were hideous ideas and push them out of my mind. But when I reached the age of 60, I finally understood the perfect innocence of the imagination. It took that long for me to admit that whatever entered my head was my business and mine alone.”
Luis Buñuel was 61 when Viridiana premiered, and his tale of sexual perversion and the deflowering of a would-be nun bore out his philosophy to a tee. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, as you might imagine, was not as amused by the imaginative freedom of the over-60 director. Despite Viridiana‘s selection as Spain’s official entry into the Cannes Film Festival, Buñuel was forced to flee to Mexico to escape reprisals by Franco’s fascist regime. He remained there the rest of his life, eventually becoming a Mexican citizen. (Ironically, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who must have been inspired by Buñuel, took up the cause of examining Franco’s Spain in both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.)
Many of Buñuel’s films rail against the hypocrisy and uselessness of the bourgeoisie, the Catholic Church, and the State. While these themes remain fairly constant throughout his genuine oeuvre (as opposed to the dozens of films he made for a buck in Mexico as a journeyman director), some of his films are informed primarily by his surrealist philosophy, and reflect his lifelong fascination with dreams. Viridiana is just such a film.
Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a novice in a cloistered convent. Shortly before she is to take final vows and be locked away from society forever, the Mother Superior suggests that she pay one last visit to her uncle Jaime (Fernando Rey), who paid for her schooling. Viridiana strenuously resists this suggestion, but says that if ordered, she will go. This scene is the first to suggest the dreamlike structure of the film, with a resistant consciousness obeying an order to plunge into the irrational.
The scene shifts to an estate, where we see the fancy footwork of a young girl jumping rope under a tree. She is Rita (Teresa Rabal), the sassy daughter of Don Jaime’s maid Ramona (Margarita Lozano). When the camera pulls back, we see Don Jaime watching her in delight. He even surprises her with a new jump rope that has real wooden handles. He seems to revel in her innocence and liveliness. His own life has been a lonely one since the death of his wife.
Viridiana arrives into this sweet scene, but Don Jaime’s warm greeting to her is met with a distinct chill. Viridiana doesn’t really remember him and still considers him something of a disgrace for fathering a child out of wedlock and abandoning the mother and child, though Don Jaime claims that was the way the woman wanted things. He assures her that his son will be provided for after he has died. He also comments on how much like her late aunt Viridiana is, right down to her walk.
Viridiana goes to her room to change and rest. The camera moves into Don Jaime’s bedroom, where he has a white, high-heeled shoe slipped over the top half of his foot and a veil draped over a dressing screen. He picks up a corset and starts to model it in front of his mirror, quickly tucking it out of sight when the loyal Ramona comes in. He tries to persuade Ramona to speak to Viridiana on his behalf, to ask her to stay on at the house indefinitely. Ramona demurs, suggesting Don Jaime speak to her himself. He moves to her room, but hides out of sight when he sees Viridiana disrobing. In one of Buñuel’s patented leg shots, she removes her thick, dark stockings to reveal a very shapely leg.
With Ramona’s assistance, he eventually persuades Viridiana to do him one last favor—don his dead wife’s wedding gown. Apparently, Viridiana was moved by the story of his wife’s death in his arms on their wedding night. However, she is repulsed when he proposes marriage to her. This refusal is Ramona’s cue to drug Viridiana’s tea. Don Jaime lays her out on a bed, intending to rape her. He unbuttons her top and kisses her passionately, but shies from the deed itself. When she comes to in the morning, however, he lies to her and tells her he has ruined her so that she can never return to the convent. Her disgusted rejection of him pushes him to suicide. In a scene of obscene hilarity, Rita is shown playing with the same jump rope Don Jaime used to hang himself.
Overcome with guilt, Viridiana determines that she cannot return to the convent after all. To carry out her pious mission in the world, she invites local beggars to live in Don Jaime’s mansion. She hopes that with religious instruction and useful tasks to perform, they will be uplifted and their souls will be saved. Most submit themselves to her requirements, but as with many religiously based missions, the unfortunates endure the sermons primarily for the food and shelter. In a move that Princess Diana would mirror several decades later, Viridiana touches a “leper” (actually, a syphilis victim) whom the other beggars shun. They agree to suffer his presence, but only if he sleeps in the shed and ties a can to himself so they will know when he is around. When one of the beggars applies himself to painting a religious picture, he asks the lovely Viridiana to pose for him as the Blessed Virgin. When she does so, her vanity becomes all too apparent.
To pick away at this chink in the saintly armor enters Viridiana’s bastard cousin Jorge (Francisco Rabal). He unashamedly brings his mistress with him and sets about turning the neglected estate to useful growing and industry. His mistress notices his undue interest in the indifferent Viridiana, and leaves him. He then takes up with Ramona.
One night, the owners of the estate must leave for town. The beggars become curious about the main house and sneak in. They kill a couple of goats and have a feast, soiling the expensive lace tablecloth, breaking the crystal and china, and making love behind the furniture. In a grotesque parody of Don Jaime’s earlier scene, the syphilitic beggar dons the dead wife’s corset and her veil and dances an obscene jig. One of the women urges them to assemble for a photograph. The tableau they create is one of the greatest visual gags in cinematic history. When the masters of the house return, the beggars vanish from the house or remove themselves to other rooms. Two of the beggars overpower Jorge and rape Viridiana. With her ideals in tatters and her sexual nature awakened in an archetypal way, Viridiana is both freed and imprisoned by her new, worldly impulses.
This film dwells in the unconscious as easily as an ant dwells in its underground tunnels. The death of Don Jaime’s wife on their wedding night is a shadow cast over the rest of the film. Could the rich man have murdered her so as not to have to consummate the marriage? He certainly has done nothing to find another mate or sexual partner. Perhaps she, too, was drugged, but with an accidental lethal dose. Clearly, Don Jaime’s sexual perversion sets the stage for the beggars’ orgy and Viridiana’s fall and rebirth as a sexual creature with warped tastes. The way the story unfolds reminds me of the progress of a dream. Viridiana’s close resemblance to her aunt sounds like the “you were there, but you weren’t you” episodes that friends often hear from dreamers. Viridiana’s dress-up date with her uncle reveals incestuous impulses in her as well, to come to full flower by the end of the dream.
Luis Buñuel’s darkly humorous films stand up extremely well for new audiences because they tap archetypes and primal impulses we all have and find the need to suppress at different times for different reasons. His discovery that “whatever entered my head was my business and mine alone” was a terrific benefit to younger moviegoers looking for that same release.
The cinephile world has gone wild over Pan’s Labyrinth. The film has earned a phenomenal 99% positive rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s hard to know what more there is to say about it—but I’ll try. While Pan’s Labyrinth is a must-see among cinephiles and has strong support from the fanboy demographic who flocked to see two of Guillermo del Toro’s previous films, Blade 2 and Hellboy, the moviegoing populace at large is going to ignore it in droves because it’s in Spanish and too violent for family viewing. That’s a shame, because this is as fine a bit of storytelling as the best Steven Spielberg narratives. Despite its realistic, graphic violence and buckets of blood, the movie rides a wave of enchantment by weaving its overt fairytale storyline subtly, but powerfully, into its real-world storyline to create a sublime sort of hybrid.
As a sort of follow-up to del Toro’s 2001 feature The Devil’s Backbone, a bleak and chilling ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in a rural area of Spain shortly after Franco’s fascist regime has taken power. Rebels still hope to unseat Franco, so military outposts continue their gruesome job of exterminating the opposition. To one such outpost travel 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who has married the outpost’s leader, Captain Vidal (Sergi López).
As del Toro sets the scene at the beginning of the film, a voiceover narration tells of the princess of the underworld who, out of curiosity and boredom, went up to the physical world and lost all memory of her identity in the rays of the sun. Her father searched for her, and never gave up hope that she would return to his kingdom one day and reclaim her identity and place. Already, del Toro has very simply put us into “tell me a story” mode, piquing our interest and riveting our attention to the tale he intends to unfold. Further, he concentrates our attention on Ofelia, who is shown in close-up reading this fairytale in a book as she rides in the car with her mother. Carmen becomes nauseated, and her driver must stop the car for her. This is an arduous trip, and Carmen is having a difficult pregnancy. She is, however, obeying her new husband, who believes a baby boy should be born near his father. In the captain’s mind, there is no chance the baby will be a girl.
Their late arrival to the outpost annoys the Captain. His greeting to his wife is perfunctory and includes an order for her to sit in a wheelchair for transportation to her new quarters. Ofelia does not like him, but she is far beneath his notice. Looking after her will be Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), the chief housekeeper. It is Mercedes who goes to retrieve Ofelia after she wanders off to explore the grounds and finds an ancient stone maze in the rundown garden.
Carmen meets Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo), who will be attending her during her pregnancy. He seems kind and concerned; Ofelia learns that he is providing medical supplies to the resistance through Mercedes, whose brother is one of its leaders. Mercedes sees Ofelia watch her take the supplies from the doctor and worries about the security of her secret. Ofelia reassures her; her hatred for the Captain guarantees Mercedes’ and Dr. Ferreiro’s safety. We come to hate the Captain, too, when we watch him commit a heinous act of brutality just to teach one of his officers a lesson.
Ofelia looks for an escape from her unhappy world. She finds it when a praying mantis that has followed her car transforms into a fairy and leads her out of the house to the maze. She comes to a circle with a staircase leading deep below ground. When she reaches the bottom, she meets a half-human, half-ram faun (Doug Jones)—perhaps it is Pan himself. He instantly recognizes her as the long-lost princess and convinces her that she must complete three tasks to prove that her essence is still pure and take her rightful place in the underworld kingdom. He hands her a book and tells her to read it and complete the tasks before the next full moon, which is fast approaching.
Ofelia examines the book in private. Its pages are empty, but when the light hits it, words and drawings magically appear. Her first task is to go to the base of a very old tree that is being strangled by a giant toad. There she is to place three rubies in the toad’s mouth, which will kill it and free the tree. She runs out in a beautiful party dress her mother has gotten her to wear to a special dinner party the Captain is having that night to introduce Carmen to his friends. She carefully removes the dress, although she has muddied her party shoes, and crawls inside the tree to confront the toad and complete the task. Enormous beetles writhe all around her, and she is slimed by the toad before conceiving a clever way to complete her task. When she emerges from the tree with a magic key the toad coughed up, her party dress has blown into the mud. Her mother, who has already been shown a cold shoulder by her husband at the dinner party, expresses her disappointment that Ofelia has missed the dinner and ruined her dress.
Soon thereafter, Carmen’s pregnancy takes a bad turn. When Ofelia looks in her magic book for her next task, the pages reveal only a red and spreading stain. She runs to her mother and finds her hemorrhaging badly, in a scene of graphic horror. The Captain tells Dr. Ferreiro that if a choice must be made, to save his son over his wife. Ofelia overhears this conversation. She knows that if her mother dies, she will be utterly expendable.
Ofelia is given her second task. She must use the key to open a safe in a banquet hall and retrieve its contents. The faun admonishes her not to eat from the banquet table under any circumstances and to return to her home before an hourglass he gives her runs out of sand. He gives her a piece of chalk to draw a door to the banquet hall, which is the only way to reach it from her room, and three of his fairies to help her. A creature called Pale Man (also played by Doug Jones) slumbers at the table. She goes past him and retrieves the contents of the safe easily. But she pauses to eat two grapes, rousing Pale Man and sending him in pursuit of her. He eats two of the fairies, but Ofelia manages to escape. She hands the faun the item she brought back, an ancient dagger, but hands him back only one of the fairies in the box her gave her. The faun is furious that she did not listen to him and ends the trial.
Back in the real world, the hunt for the resistance fighters is on. The Captain has decided to starve them out of hiding and confiscates all of the food in the area and locks it away, taking the only key to the storeroom from Mercedes. The insurgents blow up two trains to create a diversion. When the troops return from investigating the explosion, the storeroom has been unlocked, and all of the food is missing. The Captain follows his hunches to uncover the conspirators in his household. A new doctor is put in charge of Carmen, and she dies in childbirth. In the meantime, Ofelia has been forgiven and allowed one more chance to complete her trial. She is instructed to bring her newborn brother to the faun. Unfortunately, the Captain sees her, and follows her into the maze where the film climaxes.
Pan’s Labyrinth spends as much time in the real world as in its fantasy world. Del Toro toggles between the stories expertly, relieving some of our tension at the horrible acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Captain by letting us escape with Ofelia. But he never allows the suspense to dissipate completely; this is no Disney fairytale. The trials are frightening, and Ofelia is put on her guard when Mercedes tells her that fauns cannot be trusted. Del Toro has shown his complete ease with make-believe in other films; therefore, he finds it unnecessary to decide whether Ofelia’s fantasy world is real or not. This decision frees the audience from worrying about this detail and allows it to surrender completely to his story. All directors could learn a lesson or two from del Toro’s less-is-more approach to CGI. The effects, CGI and otherwise, in this movie are sophisticated, subtle, and appropriate. They don’t seek to reinvent the wheel with regard to a fairytale look, yet still manage to be original and surprising, particularly the Pale Man creature.
There are a few over-the-top moments that knock this film off its masterpiece pedestal, but nonetheless, add to the audience’s enjoyment. The Captain’s villainy is poured on with a bit too much relish. One wince-inducing scene (the man in the seat next to me was doubled up and moaning in agony watching it) demonstrates that the Captain, far from being completely cold, relishes pain. It reminded me of a scene from Urban Cowboy (1980) in which the no-good Wes (Scott Glenn) is shown full-face, playing with the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle he just emptied, twisting it between his teeth in a leer of pure evil. In another scene, Mercedes’ desperate run from the outpost ends in a far-too-pat moment designed strictly to provide a payoff to the audience.
Ultimately, we are left with a nagging question that melds the two stories together. Was the final test in the trial completed the way we are led to believe it was? I think that to win a kingdom, enormous sacrifices must be made. The resistance fighters understood this and were willing to lay down their lives to be free. In the end, Ofelia’s essential purity may have been what the faun was always after.
A few years ago, I attended the now-defunct Taos Talking Picture Festival where the Mexican film Vera was getting a rare showing. While the film did well in 2004 Ariel Awards in Mexico, it had not attracted a distributor and was doomed to a short run in a handful of festivals such as TTPF. Nonetheless, Vera was a surprise hit in Taos, perhaps due in part to the presence of the very personable Francisco Athié. His preface before the showing I attended was that we should treat Vera like an LSD trip. If you relax and go with it, he said, you will have a good trip. If not, you will have a bad trip.
Indeed, Vera is a strange, hallucinatory film that reveals itself in a slow, ritualistic way. An idyllic, rural scene gives way to a miner named Juan (Marco Antonio Arzate) lowering himself into a cave with his crude tools to go about his work. A cave-in appears to bury him. But no, he is swept through the cave in a torrent of water. An electric swarm, like a cloud of locusts, sweeps around him, pushing and bending him. A Mayan cauldron appears. He makes a deep cut in his penis and lets the blood run into the cauldron, from which a metal icon emerges. He makes his way through the cave until he reaches an egglike object that expands. A creature pushes its way through the birth canal of the object and emerges. It is young, blue, alien-like, with a visible and glowing heart. Eventually, it becomes larger and more substantial. The creature is Vera (Urara Kusanagi), and she appears to have been born to be Juan’s guide through the cave. Vera and Juan encounter a skeleton. Vera dances with it gleefully. Juan flashes on images of his home, his grandchildren, and a couple making love.
It should be clear by now that Juan is dying. Vera is his guide to the edge of death, a kind but singular creature that is both fearsome because it is unknown and a welcome presence in a dark and frightening place. Athié chose a Japanese butoh dancer to play Vera, and this is a high symbolic choice for the film. According to the Flesh & Blood Mystery Theater, butoh is “an enigma, an ever-evolving mystery. Violent or peaceful, slow or manic, painfully intimate or grandly spectacular, freely improvised or choreographed in stylized gestures, butoh seems to fly away from itself, resisting definition or explanation, yet profoundly transforming those who encounter it.” When it comes to death, there are no national boundaries, no set rules—only the need to transform life to death and whatever comes after that.
Transformation occurs for the butoh dancer, too. We watch as Kusanagi grows thinner and thinner, the burden of her task in carrying the character of Juan across the river Styx (or some version of it) taking all her substance. Eventually, a Garden of Eden appears to Juan, as Vera holds the refreshment of fruits and light before him. We in the audience are returned to the rural idyll once again.
The story took hold in Athié’s imagination as he was in the midst of and recovering from a life-threatening illness. It took him several years to make. He created the film’s rudimentary computer graphics (newborn Vera and skeleton, for example) during classes he was taking to learn the art. Vera, I think, was an exorcism for him. He didn’t seem to care about its commercial fate.
Vera holds a special place in my life. After I saw it, I was convinced that it was a perfect film for Facets, the nonprofit cinematheque and videotheque well-known throughout the United States and located in my town. I brought a tape of Vera to Charles Coleman, the programming director, and reminded him at least once a month that he really should look at it and consider the film for Facets. Eventually he did. Vera opened for one week at the very end of 2004—its only commercial run–and garnered a 3-star review in the Chicago Tribune from John Petrakis. I was a very proud film buff indeed.
Now I’m overjoyed to say that Facets will be releasing the DVD of Vera June 26 on its own publishing label. Francisco Athié has not made a film since Vera, though last I heard he was working on one. He has a small, but impressive output of films and certainly stands among the fine Mexican film makers who have emerged in recent years. I hope you will give the little film that could a viewing. It’s got a lot of heart in it, especially mine.