By Dennis Hartley
Suffer not the little children: Still from The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
Is there an echo in here? Still from Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)
In my 2009 review of Where the Wild Things Are, I wrote:
Childhood is a magical time. Well, at least until the Death of Innocence…whenever that is supposed to occur. At what point DO we slam the window on Peter Pan’s fingers? When we stop believing in faeries? That seems to be the consensus, in literature and in film.
In Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” only children “see” the angels. Even when the fantastical pals are more tangible, the adults in the room keep their blinders on. In Stephen Spielberg’s “E.T.”, Mom doesn’t initially “see” her children’s little alien playmate, even when she’s seemingly gawking right at him. […]
Somewhere in the course of this long dark night of his 9 year-old soul, in the midst of a panicky attempt to literally flee from his own actions, [the protagonist of “Where The Wild Things Are”] Max crosses over from Reality into Fantasy (even children need to bleed the valve on the “pressure cooker of life”). […]
Max washes up on the shore of a mysterious island where he finds that he suddenly can not only wrestle with his inner demons but run and jump and laugh and play with them as well. These strange and wondrous manifestations are the literal embodiment of the “wild things” inside of him that drive his complex emotional behaviors; anthropomorphic creatures that also pull double duty as avatars for the people who are closest to him.
Growing pains can overtax developing minds; it’s no wonder children often turn to fantasy to absorb the cost. Sadly some, like the young protagonists in Issa Lopez’s modern-day fairy tale Tigers Are Not Afraid, are forced to pay additional baggage fees.
Set in the slums of a Mexican town against a backdrop of warring drug cartels, the story centers on 10-year old Estrella (Paola Lara). Set adrift since her mother’s recent disappearance, Estrella lives in a state of dread.
Her mother was likely abducted and murdered at the behest of a ruthless local politician (Tenoch Huerta) whose approach to gerrymandering is simple: liquidate all non-supporters. His dirty work is handled by thugs that the locals call huascas, supervised by a brutal drug cartel member named Caco.
Even within the sanctity of the classroom, Estrella can find no respite from the horror of her everyday reality; her day at school ends abruptly when a gun battle breaks out nearby, which sends the students diving under their desks to avoid becoming collateral damage.
Soon, the absence of her mother and a dwindling food supply sends Estrella out in the streets, where she encounters a group of orphaned lost boys, led by pistol-wielding “El Shine” (Juan Ramón López).
Shine is reluctant to accept her in his gang; he demands she must prove her worth by assassinating the dreaded Caco. The look on Estrella’s face telegraphs that she is less than enthused about carrying out the request; but desperate times call for desperate measures. Besides, Shine has convinced her Caco is responsible for her mother’s disappearance (he claims to have irrefutable proof; but won’t show her).
It is at this juncture that it is suggested Estrella may possess Special Powers. As she stealthily (and shakily) creeps into Caco’s darkened apartment, where he appears to have nodded off in his living room chair while watching TV, she closes her eyes and makes a wish: “I wish I didn’t have to kill him.” Long story short-it seems somebody already has.
Is it coincidence…or did she “will” Caco to die? Opting to hedge her bets, Estrella rushes back to the gang hangout to give Shine his gun back and tell him she took care of that thing they had talked about. The boys are all duly impressed and accept her into the fold.
Oh…did I mention that she also sees dead people?
Lopez’s film conveys a sense of realism, infused with elements of fantasy and horror. Many have drawn parallels between her film and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth; while I see a connection, I’d say the more obvious antecedent is Victor Erice’s lyrical and haunting 1973 drama The Spirit of the Beehive (which surely inspired Pan’s Labyrinth).
In fact, I was so taken by the parallels that after previewing Tigers Are Not Afraid, I immediately reached for my DVD copy of The Spirit of the Beehive to confirm whether my memory was playing tricks on me (in this type of arcane exercise, it rarely does; however, half the time I wish I could remember where I left my fucking wallet and keys).
The Spirit of the Beehive takes place in 1940 Spain, in an isolated village on the vast Castilian plain. While “The Rain in Spain” may now be playing in your head (please accept my sincere apologies if it is), this is more about the reign of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
This was the point in time when Franco had fully seized power in the country after winning the Spanish Civil War (which had cost the nation nearly half a million lives). Needless to say, everyday life under a totalitarian regime is not healthy for children and other living things.
While she is too young to understand politics, 7-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent, in a remarkably affecting performance) can nonetheless sense the quiet desperation that appears to be slowly consuming her loving but oddly detached parents (Fernando Fernán Gómez and Teresa Gimpera).
While their upper middle-class life affords them a large villa and a live-in maid, Ana and her 9-year old sister Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) are essentially latchkey kids (they’re not living hand-to-mouth like the street orphans in Tigers Are Not Afraid, but are as insular and “lost” in their own way).
When a print of James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein arrives for an engagement at the village’s tiny movie theater, Ana’s life changes. As filmmaker Monte Hellman observes in his appreciation of the film written for the Criterion DVD edition:
Ana is disturbed by the killing of the little girl in the film and doesn’t understand why the monster is also killed. Isabel pretends to have the answers to Ana’s questions, but when pressed later, can say only that they’re not really dead. It’s only a movie, and nothing is real. Besides, she’s seen the monster. He’s a spirit, and she can make him appear whenever she calls him.
In subsequent scenes, the children play with and at death. Isabel experimentally attempts to strangle her cat, stopping when the cat scratches her. She applies the blood on her finger to her lips, as if it were lipstick. Later, she pretends to be dead to frighten Ana. Finally, Ana experiences the death of a real person, a deserter from the army whom she befriended. We feel Ana’s crisis as our own, for we have all passed from innocence to knowledge of mortality at some time in our own childhood.
And so it comes back to the theme as to how children under extreme duress come to grips with trauma; in the case of Estrella in Tigers Are Not Afraid and Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive (or for that matter, young Max in Where the Wild Things Are) it first requires literal invocation of their inner demons before they can be “destroyed”. Or perhaps you can trace it back to J.M. Barrie: “All you need is faith, trust and a little bit of pixie dust.”