There is a long tradition of magical realism in Latin American storytelling, which borrows elements from fables and myth and inserts them into true-to-life stories about our modern world to make fantasy part of the norm. While this is more often associated with literature, films like Amélie and the filmography of Guillermo del Toro bring elements of magical realism to film. Tigers Are Not Afraid, the newest film by Mexican writer-director Issa López, not only manages to join the pantheon of great magical realism stories; it’s a movie that’s part war documentary, part dark fantasy, and all round one of the best Latin American movies of the decade.Young Paola Lara stars as Estrella, a 10-year-old living in a world of death and loss that doesn’t care about the children left behind by the drug-related violence in Mexico. One day, as her teacher is telling the class about fables and storytelling, a gang shooting disrupts the class, which gets cancelled as a result. While ducking under their seats, the teacher gives Estrella three pieces of chalk, saying they are wishes.
Within just a couple of minutes, Issa López throws the audience head-first into a world of violence, uncertainty, and magic. At the first sound of gunfire, the kids instantly know what to do, giving the impression that this is far from their first experience with violent deaths. On her way home, Estrella sees a dead body just outside her school, and a snaking rope of blood starts following her. By the time Estrella goes home, her mother is missing.
With no family and no means of living, Estrella’s only choice is to join local street-boy El Shine (Juan Ramón López) and his gang of orphaned kids living on rooftops. They spend their days stealing and selling things, as well as hiding from the ruthless criminal organization Los Huascas, and their leader Caco (Ianis Guerrero), a dangerous narco who kills and kidnaps at will without fear of punishment because of their ties to politician El Chino (Tenoch Huerta). Their paths soon becomes intertwined and the children find themselves the new targets of the sadistic gang.
El Shine’s group of orphans — which also includes Tucsi (Hansel Casillas), Pop (Rodrigo Cortes) and 4-year-old Morrito (Nery Arredondo) — instantly brings to mind The Lost Boys from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, especially Morrito and his plush tiger, reminiscent of the teddy bear-carrying Michael Darling. The kids live together and take care of each other, wandering about their ghost town during the day and ending the nights by watching TV or telling each other stories of fairies, princes, and tigers. Issa López seems very interested in exploring the power of stories and fantasy, especially their ability to help children navigate a world too complex and cruel for them. Pop and Tucsi like to tell stories of the local missing kids and parents being used in satanic rituals by Los Huascas, and Caco’s affinity for chopping people up into pieces and selling the body parts his gang doesn’t devour.
They also tell stories of a drug lord’s tiger escaping from his private zoo and going to exact revenge on his captors and those who are cruel. Tiger imagery is found all over the movie, in graffiti on walls, and in the kid’s skateboards and soccer balls. For the kids, the tiger is a symbol of courage and resilience, and Tigers Are Not Afraid uses it not only as a warning sign of keeping an animal in a cage, but as a symbol of hope and a rallying cry to the people of Mexico who have not given up to drug lords and corruption.
There is a lot of commentary in Tigers Are Not Afraid, and it never feels too preachy. The sociopolitical observations feel painfully real, especially when it comes to El Chino’s involvement in politics and the fear that instills in the local community. Even when one of the kids mentions that he doesn’t want to watch TV anymore because everything on the air is pure violence and death, it doesn’t feel like an attack on TV shows and movies, but on news stations and a culture in general that has accepted violence to be the norm.
Issa López shoots Tigers Are Not Afraid almost like a war documentary, using a handheld camera to capture the day-to-day nightmare these kids suffer, until the third act when it becomes a straight-up horror film. As the life is getting sucked out of the characters and fear takes over, the camera becomes more still, the movements slower and more methodical. The cinematography by Juan Jose Saravia utilizes a dark and moody palette that makes the world of the film look drained.
That being said, this is still a dark fantasy, and as mentioned before, a story of magical realism. The moment Estrella realizes her mother is missing, she uses her first wish to bring her back. Soon after, she does indeed return, only as a dark specter that follows Estrella wherever she goes. Like the early works of Guillermo del Toro (in particular The Devil’s Backbone, which feels like a spiritual sibling to this movie), Tigers Are Not Afraid portrays ghosts not as demonic entities looking to possess, but as angry spirits demanding justice. The film takes the existence of ghosts and magical wishes as ordinary, but it is constantly asking you whether you believe in it or not – after all, only Estrella sees the ghosts. The movie is also not afraid to get bloody, with no character being safe.
Of course, this all works thanks to the young ensemble. Not only like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, but similar to City of God, Issa López is interested in showing the horrors of the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable – children. The kids are all great and each get a moment to shine. Tucsi and Pop will make you laugh, and Morrito will instantly melt your heart with just a smile, but it is the work of Paola Lara and Juan Ramón López as Estrella and El Shine that elevate the film. The two depict the contrast between two styles of grieving, with El Shine lashing out in anger over the murder of his parents and wanting nothing but revenge, while Estrella expresses her fear and loss in a more reserved way and wants nothing to do with violence. López and Lara act with the gravitas of veteran actors, carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders despite being newcomers.