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Cronos, Guillermo del Toro's (The Devil's Backbone, Blade 2, Hellboy) first film, a decidedly unique take on vampirism and its effects on an unsuspecting antiques dealer, gestated for almost seven years before del Toro obtained the funding necessary to shoot his script. That time allowed del Toro to polish his script to near perfection, as well as work in the Mexican television industry as a director and makeup effects artist to hone his skills. With Cronos, Guillermo del Toro's first film, sought to re-imagine the vampire mythos. Rather than explore vampirism as a blood-borne plague (the modern interpretation), del Toro focuses his film on the Cronos device of the title, a golden scarab with metal spider legs and scorpion stinger that houses an imprisoned, parasitic, seemingly eternal insect that exchanges immortality for human blood. The Cronos device is the product of alchemy, the creation of a 16th century Spanish occultist who flees to the New World to escape the Spanish Catholic Church and the Spanish Inquisition.

All that is prologue, however, as an unseen narrator shares this exposition with the audience, the camera glides down to the dying alchemist, crushed under the masonry of a collapsed bank. The next scene introduces the price to be paid for immortality, murder, as the camera dollies through a set of rooms, briefly revealing a desanguinated victim hanging by his feet. The device disappears for several decades until an antiques dealer, Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) discovers the device in the hollowed statue of an archangel. The device, however, has been sought by a rich, but dying, Western industrialist, Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), and his henchman/nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman). Accidentally pricked by the Cronos device, the protagonist finds himself caught in a tightening spiral of conflict and violence against antagonistic forces, both internal and external, he can barely understand.

Cronos, however, is more than just a horror/fantasy film. Del Toro creates a second narrative line of action by framing the horror story as a family drama through the protagonist's relationship with his estranged wife, Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) and with his orphaned granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), who is nearly speechless throughout the film. The traumas, the loss of a son for the protagonist, the lost of her parents for the granddaughter are apparently still fresh. After the prologue, the narrative opens with a quiet, almost silent breakfast. The composition is framed with the protagonist at the head of the dining table, with his wife and granddaughter on either side. The characters are alone in their unspoken, palatable grief. That grief isn't verbalized, except obliquely, through performance and pauses in the dialogue. In one early scene, as the protagonist searches for and discovers his granddaughter hiding in the attic, he begins to reminisce about his son at her age. The pauses, the exchange of looks, the play of emotion over the protagonist's face say it all: grief is an enduring, almost physical presence in their lives.

After the dinner table scene, the main line of action is introduced, with the protagonist discovering the golden scarab inside the hollowed-out, one-eyed statue of an archangel infested with insects (a visual motif repeated in most of del Toro's subsequent work). Accidentally activated, the device begins to transfer its power, as well as its hunger, to the protagonist. There's no Faustian bargain here, however, because the protagonist has made no conscious choice to exchange his life for the half-life the device promises. The narrative, having established the interior life of the protagonist, followed by the initial complication, the golden scarab, shifts to external conflict with the introduction of the antagonists, the violent-prone Angel, and his uncle, Claudio, the dying industrialist (who, in a sense, is a mirror image of Jesus Gris, dying where the protagonist is healthy, wanting more life, while Jesus is content with his; monstrous, in his desires and ambitions, where the protagonist is human, grounded by love, emotion, and family).

As the film unfolds, however, Aurora becomes both a silent witness to the action and the moral barometer for the protagonist. Later in the narrative, after the protagonist escapes a vertiginous near-death experience, and an attempt to renew communication with his wife is rebuffed, Aurora allows him to re-enter their house and provides refuge for him in the attic (she even creates a makeshift coffin from him inside a treasure chest; he sleeps, alone, with her toys). Del Toro never loses sight of the centrality of the relationship between the protagonist and his granddaughter, a relationship grounded in unconditional love, using a symmetrical composition to end Cronos that recapitulates the earlier scene mentioned above, with the now prone protagonist reunited with his wife and granddaughter, the room flooded with light and the screen fading to white. Del Toro minimizes the use of dialogue, allowing the changing light values in the composition and the performances to generate meaning and authentic emotion. A near perfect end to a near perfect film.

Mel Valentin, 19th May, 2004

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