Del Toros’ breakthrough film is a sophisticated take on a legend that remains unexhausted by endless re-interpretation. The themes of greed, temptation and international politics permeate this film; Del Toro turns a gothic yarn into a dark political fable, using the vampire as a symbol of destructive craving and isolation.
The story is relatively simple: An ageing antiques dealer, Gris (Federico Luppi) and his little granddaughter stumble on a device that slowly turns the user into a vampire. A dying American billionaire and his nephew (Claudio Brook and Ron Perlman) are also in search of it, and try to terrorise Gris into giving it up. Gris, fascinated with the possibilities of the device, retains his hold on it. The story revolves around the conflict between temptation, addiction and fear of the consequences.
Visually the film is nearly faultless, especially the directors use of light, which is golden and misty in the domestic scenes. As the film grows darker, the colours are desaturated, and the lighting grows grimmer. Some frames are visually stunning, though others are a bit pedestrian, making the tone slightly uneven. The violence and horror is hard to bear, even if you allow that it makes the film more powerful, or brings the moral message home. As the device and the Americans infiltrate the protagonists life, the film grows correspondingly more violent.
On one level, the film is a clear allegory of U.S. Mexican relations, set firmly on the side of Mexico. The small shopkeeper suffers at the hands of heartless, wealthy Americans, who try to steal something valuable from him; Gris is a sympathetic representation of Mexico as the victim: He is the harmless, provincial family man, a personification of easygoing Mexican values. The American characters, by contrast, are a portrayal of a bad America, distanced from the Mexicans by repeated lapses into English. The billionaire and his nephew are brutal, greedy, materialistic and have no affection for each other whatsoever. Their emotional isolation from the world signifies the directors belief that wealth and greed can be fatal to human values. Their preoccupation with materialism reflects U.S. capitalism, which the film Del Toro portrays as potentially fatal to Mexico as personified in Gris. The more addicted he becomes to the device, the more Gris becomes a reflection of the Americans, who have lost their humanity already. In this way, the device represents wealth, in Del Toros’ terms, as a force which grants material well-being, yet destroys and transforms; by the end of the film, Gris has completely changed from a very human personification of the Mexican everyman to a reflection of the antagonists: Isolated, inhuman, and consumed with craving. The political narrative of the allegory has Mexico transformed by wealth into a reflection of America-and in the process lose its values and identity.
On another level, the film goes further than political allegory; the narrative also represents the internal war in everyone between greed and innocence, which are portrayed as very much at odds. The granddaughter in the film personifies conscience, and the higher morals; She repeatedly tries to interrupt Gris’ addiction, which reflects the addiction of humanity to anything spiritually dangerous. As the film progresses, Gris first makes half-hearted reassurances to her, then shifts to wordless dependence on her forgiveness. The transformation Gris goes through, from man to vampire, is a shift away from humanity, towards the cruelty and brutality the Americans personify. As the narrative progresses, there is a reversal of roles: the first scenes are dominated by the granddaughter, and Gris’ home life; By the end of the film, the Americans are the centre of attention. The crucial moment, which decides Gris’ fate, comes at the end: Starved of blood, he comes close to killing the granddaughter. His choice-to die and thus protect the granddaughter-is a rejection of greed which we all have to make.
Cronos is essentially a dark fable, as well as a political allegory. But the presentation of it is very slightly unbelievable due to the symbolism-the Americans are so utterly, disgustingly foul it is hard to believe people like that exist. Overall, the film works, but the horror makes it hard to watch.