Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is one of cinema’s more striking stylists currently working. His films are aggressively visually florid, and he tends to work within a vaguely familiar fairy tale milieu, creating exciting and brisk fantasy sagas about vampires, demons, fauns, and other muddy backyard fae folk. It’s easy to compare him to Tim Burton, and not just because both enjoyed retrospectives at LACMA. But like Burton, del Toro has managed to straddle a line between high fantasy and cerebral arthouse darkness. He has made a few ambitious, striking, but largely empty blockbusters (among them Mimic, Blade II, Pacific Rim, Hellboy), as well as three Spanish-language tales of magical realism that tap deeply into the soul-eroding effect of living under the Franco regime, and specifically what effect that regime had on the minds of children.
Unlike his peers in the Mexican New Wave (a movement that includes award-winning directors like Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu), del Toro has eschewed heavy-handed melodramatics, approaching film with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of a legitimate fanboy. del Toro is driven by his love of creature features and comic book silliness, and his films tend to be homages to the flicks of his youth. Another comparison to Tim Burton: It’s only when he begins to explore his own inner demons that he truly begins to shine as an important auteur.
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The Criterion Collection has released Guillermo del Toro’s three Spanish-language films in a single Blu-ray box set today, calling them a trilogy. The three films in the set – 1993’s Cronos, 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, and 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth – are easily the director’s best, but it’s a curious choice to group them as a single thematic unit. Upon the release of this box set, we are now faced with the enjoyable critical task of finding whatever linking material the three films may possess, and we may find that a review of the trilogy will reveal that the trio’s themes are surprisingly well-braided.
Cronos, Guillermo Del Toro’s first feature, is about an aging man (del Toro regular Federico Luppi) who discovers an alchemical insect-like device in the rubble of a building that was bombed out in 1937. The device injects him with a youth-restoring drug (produced by an insect that lives inside the device), but also essentially makes him into a blood-drinking vampire. Although much has been critically made of the gallows tragedy of the film’s vampire narrative (Cronos is well-respected among genre fans), the real soul of the piece comes from Luppi’s relationship to his young granddaughter Aurora. When she sees his youth return, and then his appetites begin to undo him, she has to grapple with who he is becoming. This could be seen as a metaphor for disease, or merely the grief-mined landscape of watching a loved one simply grow older.
The chronology of the film reveals its political underpinnings: 1937, when the vampire device was bombed, was the opening year of the Spanish Civil War, and was the year Franco came into power. Even in the present, Franco’s terrifying regime is uncovering echoes of a dark sickness and bloodthirst that still haunts the older generation. At first, the political ideas can seem to revitalize you. Pretty soon, you’re tempted to – in this case, literally – feed off of your grandchildren.
The Devil’s Backbone may be competing with Pan’s Labyrinth as del Toro’s best film, and is equally damning of the Franco regime. The Devil’s Backbone was also produced by cinema giant Pedro Almodóvar and it may feel more grounded as a result. It’s sold as a horror film (there is a ghost), but this is a political commentary through and through. The film takes place in a remote orphanage in Spain in 1939. A few years previous a bomb had landed in the open square of the orphanage, and it remains there, unexploded, defused, and threatening everyone. The main character is a young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who learns about the rough life with the other boys, eventually allying with many of them and forming the type of rough-and-tumble friendship that boys actually have. There are several subplots involving the adults in the orphanage, and their political allegiances.
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Oh yes, and there’s a ghost of a young boy stalking the corridors.
The Devil’s Backbone is a treatise on the way the emotional and political passions – both positive and wholly negative – can flow into the young people of wartime. The children are definitely bearing the brunt of violent political revolution. This is the common theme of del Toro’s trilogy. He sees children as complex beings, but nonetheless innocents, whose open minds and confounded views of adulthood are simply ripped away from them at a moment’s notice by forces they never intended to be involved in.
Pan’s Labyrinth is the most recent addition to the Criterion Collection, as both Cronos and Backbone had previous releases. It also perhaps needs the least amount of analysis here, as it was an enormous hit and critical darling back in 2006. Pan’s Labyrinth is about a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who has been forced by her sickly mother (Maribel Verdú) to move in with her new stepfather, a strict military general (Sergi López). It’s 1944, and the Spanish Civil War is officially over, but there are still pockets of rebels here and there.
Ofelia then wanders into a labyrinth where she meets a large terrifying faun (Doug Jones) who begins sending her on magical fairy-tale quests to retrieve keys and other magical trinkets. Whether or not the faun and other fantasy creatures are real is a matter of interpretation. Needless to say, the fantasies get darker as Ofelia’s stepfather becomes more violent. Unlike The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth allows itself to become creatively unleashed; the fairy tale sequences are some of the more dazzling one is likely to see. And while Pan’s Labyrinth is perfectly enjoyable as a treatise on how children use imaginative imagery to escape a harsh reality (something that is seen as both a superpower and a deadly bad habit in the film), it might play even more powerfully the more you know about fascist Spain, the height of the Franco administration, and the particular Spanish political ethos known as Falangism.
The three films come packaged in an amazing box, which is laced with gold, and folds out like a puzzle. These three films are amazingly imaginative, and del Toro has many fans who enjoy his treatment of fairy tales. But to delve into these films – and their political significance – might reveal more beyond the monsters.
Top Image: The Criterion Collection
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.