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In the darkness a clock ticks. The ticking of one clock is gradually replaced by another and then another. Time two-steps along, ad infinitum, each clock marking the passage its own way. Antique dealer Jesus Gris marks his time with his beloved granddaughter Aurora, taking only enough of it away from her to show love to his wife Mercedes.
Cronos, the debut film from director Guillermo del Toro (Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II) is an unusual vampire tale of time, temptation and triumph of the soul. Frederico Luppi stars as Jesus Gris, a religious family man in the twilight of his years. The character name is just one of many religious symbols del Toro sprinkles throughout the film. The film also happens to be set during the Christmas season, slyly juxtaposing the birth of the biblical Jesus Christ to the vampiric birth of our Jesus Gris. Señor Gris comes to possess, quite accidentally, the ancient Cronos device. Appearing to Jesus as a wonderful and mysterious shiny bauble, it entices him to play with it as a toy would entice a child. Unwittingly he is setting in motion not only the clock-gear workings of the device, but also the mechanisms of his own eternal fate.
The device of the film’s title is the invention of a sixteenth century alchemist who fled to Mexico during the Spanish Inquisition. Using the device is a painful procedure, which resembles a junkie shooting up with an initial wince of pain and anguish, giving way to blissful relaxation. The alchemist designed the machine to grant eternal life and youthful vigor to the user. The only drawbacks are marble white skin that burns under sunlight and an insatiable thirst for human blood. Therein lies the temptation of Jesus. He has been granted the gift of time, but the cost of the gift is dear. Like the biblical Jesus will he keep his soul intact faced with such great temptation, or will he be overcome?
Del Toro handles what most directors would find dark subject matter with a light touch. Tender and humorous moments alike benefit from this style. The traditionally non-horror aspects of the story are in fact much more actualized than the film’s familiar genre elements. There are a few moments in a funeral parlor that are just downright funny. While not completely satisfying as a vampire film, the bright tone of the film allows for appreciation of the positive qualities of Jesus and his family.
The pace of the film is much akin to the tick tock cadence of a clock. While that works throughout most of the film hand in hand with del Toro’s light touch, a few of the climactic moments could have benefited from an increase in tempo and intensity. del Toro’s light touch but steady hand extends to the religious themes which flow through and around the film, subtly under painting the events of the plot. Those cinematic brush strokes range from the device being hidden in a blackened statue of an Archangel (the devil, tempting Jesus maybe?), to the loose translation of Ron Perlman’s stock dumb villain character’s name to “Guardian Angel.” (Jesus’ guardian angel? That would be an interesting thought.) While the theme of time is the first we are presented with, and may be more visually and thematically prevalent, it certainly does not overpower religion or the family values aspects displayed by the Gris family. In fact, the themes don’t really ever seem to reach the surface of the film. They bubble constantly just under the surface, never quite reaching a boil. The film overall seems a little unfocused with the many themes of the film never reaching a real conclusion.
Winner of the 1994 Best Picture award at the Cannes Film Festival, Cronos is a very well made film. If you are in the mood for a subtle, intelligent and light hearted drama, I highly recommend popping it in the VCR, or DVD player when the special edition is released. I happened to view this on VHS, dubbed into English, so I’m quite anxious to view that special edition. I must warn you though, if you want a good, blood-curdling vampire story with lots of chills and thrills, you will be disappointed. If you want vicious monsters and scary blood-drinkers, check out Del Toro’s other vampire opus Blade II, or do what I do and curl up with a few old friends…Count Dracula and those luscious Vampire Lovers.