Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio dropped on Netflix just in time for Christmas. The movie opens with falling snow and an abundance of religious imagery, as appropriate for its Italian setting as it was for Guillermo del Toro‘s own Mexican upbringing. The role of Geppetto (David Bradley)’s carved crucifix establishes Jesus and the titular wooden boy as one and the same, with the spoils of war as prevalent here as it has been in del Toro’s other movies. Pinocchio is full of thematic depth and historical allegory, something fans of del Toro have found in most of his stories, but despite its release date and Roman Catholic setting, this is not the director’s most festive tale. Surprising as it may be, del Toro’s most Christmassy film may be a vampire movie.
In the 1990s, del Toro made his feature film debut with Cronos. The film follows an elderly antiques dealer Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) and his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) who, during the Christmas period, come across an archangel statuette which holds a 400-year-old scarab. The scarab latches onto the antiques dealer, giving him a new-found youthful vitality, but with it comes a thirst for blood. Meanwhile, a dying businessman Dieter (Claudio Brook) employs his intimidating nephew Angel (played by frequent del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman) to retrieve the device by any means necessary. Christmas’s relevance to this intimate monster movie doesn’t merely extend to the time of year the story is set. As with everything in Cronos, del Toro uses subtle heartfelt techniques to tell an impactful story about much more than what one sees on the surface.
It’s the Time of the Season
The film is set during the Christmas and New Year period, with very little reason as far as the plot is concerned. Beyond Ron Perlman’s whistling of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and plot developments that happen to take place at a New Year’s party, the festive setting is entirely expendable. Why then would del Toro insist on its inclusion? Upon deeper inspection, Cronos is not merely a film set at Christmas, but rather a film about Christmas. As is typical of Guillermo del Toro movies, its story is largely allegorical (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone are a girl and boy’s coming of age stories, respectively, while The Shape of Water comments on racial and sexual prejudices).
It’s noteworthy that the story’s protagonist is given his powers not only from an archangel, but during the Christmas period. Despite his initial conflict towards the scarab, he grows to appreciate its effects, even using it during his nightly prayer, tying the two ideas together in the story. As with the story of Christ, when Jesús fails to concede his power, he is sent to his death, in this case, by the deliciously devilish Perlman. Jesús prays for survival but dies, only to resurrect moments before his coffin is cremated. The religious imagery is always at the forefront of Cronos‘ production design, just as it is in 2022’s Pinocchio, but here, it is also in the DNA of the story’s hero. The protagonist’s journey in Cronos perfectly mirrors that of Christ himself, whose life is celebrated during the festive period.
After a prelude about the 400-year-old scarab, the title card plays, and cuts immediately to the opening of the movie’s main story. The first image Del Toro gives us to introduce us to the story of Jesús Gris are the upside-down words “Feliz Navidad” reflected in a puddle in the ground. The Spanish “Merry Christmas” establishes the time of year, of course, but lit among the dark and flipped on its head, Del Toro is telling his audience that this is the story of Christmas. However, this story is a twisted, inverted version of the festive light show one would expect from the Yuletide. This is Christmas by another name.
What’s in the Name?
The archangel Gabriel catalyzes the story of Christmas by informing Mary of her son’s power as the son of God. It’s no coincidence that an archangel grants Jesús his power in Cronos too. Throughout his life and his legacy, Christ is opposed by the temptation and threats of the devil, who himself is a fallen angel. Perlman’s performance in Cronos is enthralling as a servant of evil, making his character’s name, Angel, both ironic and on-the-nose (pun intended if you’re aware of his character’s obsession with nasal reconstruction).
When Jesús Gris is given a new-found power and immortality, his refusal to betray the child who looks up to him puts him in the line of fire of the powers at be. It’s no surprise that Federico Luppi’s character in Cronos is named after the religious prophet, but the namesakes do not end there. Our hero’s internal conflict is with his struggle to overcome his bloodlust. This is personified by his relationship with his granddaughter Aurora, a relationship inspired by del Toro’s childhood relationship with his grandmother. This relationship is also similar to that of Pinocchio and Geppetto, whose love towards each other in spite of differing desires stems from del Toro’s “raging” atheism and love of the macabre in the face of his grandmother’s Catholicism. Aurora is named after the Roman Goddess of the dawn. Dawn is considered fatal to traditional vampires in literature, even burning the skin of Jesús in Cronos. He is unable to live as both a vampire and her grandfather, and his final sacrifice is made in the hope of remaining her grandfather alone. Whether he succeeds is open to interpretation, much like del Toro’s views on religion.
In The Devil’s Backbone (which also features Federico Luppi), Del Toro uses names to subconsciously brand his characters as archetypes in his audience’s minds. Those he wishes to establish as bad (at least in the beginning) are given J names such as Jacinto and Jaime. Those he wishes to establish as good (Carlos, Carmen, Conchita and Federico Luppi’s Casares) are given C names. The internal conflict between man’s struggle to be good versus evil is personified by these characters through the initials J and C, which is hard to imagine is a coincidence, given del Toro’s multi-layered attention to detail.
Cronos is currently streaming on HBO Max in the U.S. and Turner Classic Movies precedes the movie with an exclusive introduction video from the writer-director himself. He introduces his feature debut as “a vampire film that you discover is a vampire film about halfway through.” Guillermo del Toro recalls the first time he showed the movie to the head of the Mexican Institute of Film and was told that no one would see this movie, and it would win no awards. In reality, Cronos went on to win multiple Mexican Academy Awards and was the country’s entry for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the 1994 Oscars, a year often called the best year for movies. Del Toro proudly declares that this was the film to change everything for his life and career, and if ever there was a time of year to rediscover this triumph of low-budget filmmaking, it’s Christmas.