("La Invencion de Cronos")
A Commentary by Linda S. Barth
While spending a few days with friends in New York six years ago, I attended a showing of Guillermo del Toro's film "Cronos." In all honesty, if Ron Perlman had not had a major role in the movie, I probably would not have been terribly interested in seeing it. However, I'm very glad I did, as it was a fascinating experience.
"Cronos" is much more than a sub-titled horror film in the vampire genre. True, the plot does center upon an ancient, arcane device that grants eternal life in exchange for a donation of fresh human blood. And in accordance with the vampiric tradition, once one has entered into this covenant, certain physical transformations, such as an aversion to sunlight and an ongoing lust for blood, become part of the new convert's daily existence.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to concentrate on the bare bones of the plot, for that would preclude consideration of del Toro's deeper intent in making this film. He uses the vampire-like "Cronos" mechanism as a vehicle to explore interwoven aspects of a timeless theme: Resurrection, both of the body and the spirit, the sacred and the profane. The film itself is an allegory, full of the symbolism that characterizes the long-ago marriage of Paganism and Roman Catholicism that still thrives in Mexico today.
Consider the names of the main characters: Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman), Jesus Gris (Federic Luppi), Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Jesus is the kindly antique dealer who buys and sells various decorative objects, including religious artifacts. With his young granddaughter Aurora at his side, he discovers, by accident or perhaps by fated design, the Cronos Device, a treasure hidden away inside the hollow heart of a plaster angel. Unable to understand or to resist his fascination with the glittering insect-like object, Jesus soon learns that its beautiful golden shell hides a terrible secret, and once bitten (literally and figuratively), he finds his life has changed forever. Against his higher will, he is made part of an ancient, irrevocable plan, one which both repulses and attracts him, and sets his spirit at war with itself. As the film progresses, his struggle becomes all the more compelling for the quiet dignity and goodness he exemplifies even in the throes of temptation and degradation. Jesus is at once the light and the darkness, the struggle within every human soul to find the strength to look away from evil and embrace goodness.
Ron Perlman's "Angel" is most definitely a fallen member of the celestial brotherhood. He is coarse and aggressive, the proverbial bull in the antiques shop, a single-minded soul with narrow vision who pushes and shoves his way toward a purely selfish goal. Both sinner and sinned against, Angel serves his penance by enslaving himself to his deranged, demanding uncle, but it is a willing servitude because Angel believes it will enable him to one day discover the source of the older man's wealth and then steal it for himself.
Claudio Brook plays Angel's reclusive, invalid uncle, Dieter de la Guardia, whose heart burns with his desire for renewed life. It is he who possesses the key to the Cronos Device, a book written by a fourteenth century alchemist that explains its use and purpose, but he does not know how to locate the mechanism itself, nor is he aware that Jesus had already found it. Having learned the device was secreted long ago within the statue of an angel, he demands that his cruel and greedy nephew search out and purchase all likely figures until the right one is found. In the murky light of his home on the top floor of a warehouse, Dieter keeps himself hidden away, his sole companions the ever-growing band of unfortunate, plaster angels and his only blood relative, a "Dark Angel" whose toady-like veneer thinly masks the family trait of self-serving avarice.
Throughout the film, the caliber of acting is very high, but, not surprisingly, Ron Perlman is outstanding. It would have been a simple thing to play Angel as a thick, boorish brute, and I'm sure many actors of lesser quality would have done just that, turning the character into nothing more than a mindless thug. Yet, as we have seen him do so many times in his career, Ron Perlman once again proves himself to be an actor of great talent and sensitivity who never settles for the easy way out. He turns Angel into a far more complex man than he first appears to be, gradually revealing unexpected facets of the character that both entice and unsettle the viewer. Angel cannot rise above the baser aspects of his nature for very long, but Perlman gives him a dark sense of humor and a heart, albeit rather twisted, that in the end hints that perhaps this angel might have been redeemed.
Especially in the often horrifying exchanges with his nephew Angel, the elderly and ailing Dieter often appears to be a pathetic creature who is deserving of our compassion. However, this is only a fašade, for his obsessive desire for life at any cost is not a glorious struggle, but rather the product of a dark and twisted spirit. His battle is the antithesis of Jesus' desperate struggle for redemption. Dieter has entered a self-imposed union with dark demons of the mind and heart, while Jesus is the bright and good soul condemned to walk his own road to Calvary.
Ultimately, and with a measure of heavy-handed symbolism, it is the dawn child, Aurora, who leads her suffering Uncle Jesus out of excruciating darkness and into benevolent light. Unlike Angel de la Guardia who serves no god but himself, Aurora is the true heavenly spirit - the all-knowing yet innocent child, the guardian and guide, the avenging angel. Throughout Jesus' ordeal, Aurora is ever-present, willing to sacrifice herself if need be, never feeling the need to question or object to the horrors she witnesses, for she personifies the light of faith in its truest sense.
There is much "Cronos" is not - such as a simple-minded, patent horror movie - and there is so much more that it is. It is a story full of irony, dignity, dark humor, and fascinating explorations of universal themes. It is another look at "the dark night of the soul," offering the promise that, against all odds, grace, reason, and faith can ultimately uplift and ennoble the human soul, even in the throes of degradation and destruction.
If, like me, your initial interest in seeking out "Cronos" is to see another outstanding addition to the film career of the gifted Ron Perlman, I think you will be surprised and gratified to find not only an incredibly impressive performance by our favorite actor, but also a very haunting and memorable film.