Crime in Mexico is no joke. In the past 10 years, roughly 160,000 have died in drug-related violence and more than 53,000 have disappeared. The drug war has torn families apart and left children orphaned and homeless. Those that are left behind must fend for themselves, usually turning to crime as a means to survive. Tigers Are Not Afraid (Los Tigres No Tienen Miedo or Vuelven) is a modern fairy tale set in the slums of Mexico.
In the opening scene, a teacher asks her class to write their own fairy tales. Estrella (Paola Lara), the 10-year old heroine of this story, writes: “Once upon a time, there was a prince who wanted to be a tiger.” Her train of thought is interrupted when bullets fly into the classroom from outside. The teacher instructs the class to get on the floor and remain calm. She places three pieces of chalk into Estrella’s hands, telling her they represent three wishes. When the gunfire dies down, the class is dismissed. Outside, Estrella passes by the body of the victim, his face covered by the police called to the scene. The blood from his head flows out like a snake and follows behind Estrella as she walks home.
When she gets home, Estrella discovers that her mother has mysteriously disappeared without a trace. After waiting for hours to no avail, she takes out a piece of chalk and makes her first wish: that her mother would come back. However, similar to the tale of the Monkey’s Paw, her wish is granted with a negative consequence. Estrella is visited by a vision of her mother from beyond the grave who speaks to her in a ghostly whisper. Too scared to stay in her house, Estrella sets out into the streets.
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She comes across a rooftop camp of young orphan boys. Each of them has a different story of how they ended up on the streets. The youngest, Morro, is too traumatized from what he has witnessed to the point that he refuses to speak. As for their jefe, Shine (Juan Ramón López), his parents were burned alive in his house. He managed to escape with his life, but was left with a hideous burn on the side of his face. Shine is hardened by the experience, yet is determined to protect the other boys. He’s wary of letting Estrella stay with them, but he sympathizes with her situation.
Shine’s gang tell fairy tales to cope with their harsh environment, proving that their childlike imagination has not yet been corrupted. In these fairy tales, the Huascas play the role of the boogeymen. The Huascas are a drug cartel of evil men, responsible for the disappearances of the children’s families. It’s rumoured that they snatch up children to chop into pieces and sell for their satanic rituals. The Huascas have specifically targeted Shine after they find out that he stole a phone and a gun off one of their members. The phone contains incriminating evidence and the Huascas will stop at nothing to get it back, even if it involves murdering children in cold blood.
Tigers are a strong symbol in this film. Shine has spray-painted tigers all around the barrio. In a stunning piece of animation, these graffiti tigers come to life as Shine tells the story of a tiger escaping its cage to roam the streets for food. Like Estrella’s fairy tale, Shine aspires to be a tiger: free and fearless. Morro also carries around a stuffed animal of a tiger, who comes to life in Estrella’s imagination in the third act of the movie.
There’s a reason why Tigers Are Not Afraid is being hailed as “the best Guillermo del Toro movie her never made.” It’s a tale of childhood innocence being destroyed by adult cruelty. But this violent world we’re dropped into still has elements of wonder and magic, manifested in Estrella’s visions of fairies and dragons. There are some horrifying scenes, where the corpses of countless murdered parents call out to Estrella for help. There are also some heart-breaking scenes, so it would be advisable to watch this with a box of tissues nearby. Writer/director Issa López is able to show the beauty in the ugliness by using shots of vandalized alleyways and landscapes of the slums lighting up at a night. Attaching a dark fantasy and a human story to a real world epidemic, López is able to capture the concern of privileged viewers of the developed world who would of otherwise continued to ignore the pain of Mexico.
3.5 / 4 eberts
Tigers Are Not Afraid was screened at this year’s Ithaca Fantastik Film Festival