It's Guillermo del Toro's first feature film, although he made three shorts in 1985-87: Dona Lupe, Dona Herlinda and Her Son (as producer only) and Geometria. It feels more lightweight than his later, more ambitious films like Pan's Labyrinth
and the Hellboys
, but it makes up for that in atmosphere and character. It's very del Toro... luscious, rich and a blend of dark fantasy and horror.
The plot is small-scale and simple. In 1535, an alchemist in Vera Cruz discovered the secret of eternal life. In the present day, an antique dealer (Federico Luppi) finds a spiky-legged clockwork beetle hidden in a statue of an archangel. This is one disgusting little critter. It sticks its legs in your hand. Luppi now has a problem, not to mention a wife (Margarita Isabel) and a granddaughter (Tamara Shanath) who thinks he's wonderful and would follow him anywhere. Unfortunately Luppi's find is being sought by a dying businessman (Claudio Brook) and his American nephew (Ron Perlman), who are nearly as unpleasant as the beetle.
This is what the film focuses on throughout. We stick with this tiny cast as they explore the unsettling imagination of del Toro. It's disgusting, but beautiful. Even right at the start of his career, del Toro had a wonderful touch as a filmmaker. The worlds he evokes are absorbing, with a rich culture, history and character suggested in almost every shot. It never feels like a movie set. I love spending time in a del Toro film. It's almost disappointing to reach the end of one, because it means you're leaving his world again... until the next time, of course. It helps that Luppi's playing an antiques dealer, mind you. Everything about the film is steeped in antiquity, from the deliberate gulfs between the characters' ages (Luppi, Isabel and Brook are old, while Shanath is tiny) to the plot McGuffin to the religious resonances. Luppi's character is called Jesus and Perlman's is called Angel, while del Toro will have been aware of the theological ramifications of his plot even if he's not shoving them down our throats. It's specifically a Catholic movie.
I'm being deliberately vague about where the plot's going. In the end, it's familiar territory. However it feels fresh anyway, partly because del Toro's treating it as an endpoint rather than a premise and partly due to the reality of the characters. Luppi's relationship with his granddaughter is what gives the film its heart.
The cast contains two of del Toro's favourite actors: Federico Luppi (The Devil's Backbone
, Pan's Labyrinth
) and Ron Perlman (Blade II, the Hellboys
). I'm a big Perlman fan too, although for what it's worth, he wasn't such a big name back in 1993. He was famous from that Beauty and the Beast TV series, but his first leading role was still a couple of years away, with The City of Lost Children. Interesting. That was another foreign-language role for him, although in fairness this time most of his dialogue's in English. Anyway, all the performances in this film feel perfect. Even the child actress (Shanath) is exactly what she needs to be, although del Toro wisely gives her no dialogue. Perlman is both menacing and funny. Luppi goes for his role with conviction. This is particularly important here because the del Toro ambiance is so all-encompassing that a single wrong note could shatter it, but fortunately it doesn't.
It made me cringe a bit. Del Toro's relishing the gore, albeit in an intimate way instead of spraying it around like a fire hose. The toilet scene is a good example. Ewww. Without using violence or physical injury of any kind, del Toro still gets a strong audience reaction.
It's a startling one. Del Toro finds his movie-making voice immediately, even he's telling a smaller story than he would in his later works. Everything comes together to make a kind of magic, from the characters to the intricate design work. It cleaned up at Mexico's movie awards, the Ariels, then won the International Critics' Award at Cannes. I'd known that del Toro wasn't happy with his second movie, Mimic, but I imagine that's because that was the first time he'd worked in English for an American studio. Hang on, no. He got screwed by the Weinsteins. However I've never seen a del Toro film in Spanish that's not a pleasure to immerse oneself in and it seems that was true from the beginning.