Combustible Celluloid
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With: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Ianis Guerrero, Rodrigo Cortes, Hanssel Casillas, Nery Arredondo, Tenoch Huerta Mejia
Written by: Issa López
Directed by: Issa López
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Spanish with English subtitles
Running Time: 83
Date: 09/05/2019

Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Scars and Stripes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Horror films can often get close to real-world terrors, often indirectly implying a connection and letting the audience bridge the gap. Issa López's extraordinary Tigers Are Not Afraid gets a little closer than that, facing a horrifying situation almost head-on, filtered only by a thin veneer of the supernatural, so thin that it could also be the imaginations of children. In Mexico, gang violence runs rampant. Estrella (Paola Lara) sits in her class as her teacher discusses fairy tales, asking the students to make up their own, when an explosion rocks the building. From their places on the floor, the teacher asks the children to continue thinking of their stories. Estrella's is about a tiger. Later, the teacher gives her three pieces of chalk, for three wishes.

The school is shut down due to the violence, and, at home, Estrella's mother seems to have vanished, perhaps taken by gangsters. Estrella uses her first wish to bring back her mother, with not quite the expected results. Meanwhile, an even younger kid called Shine (Juan Ramón López) steals a gun and a cell phone from a staggeringly drunk gang lord, and brings them back to his little rooftop outpost, peopled by three other orphaned boys (Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, and Nery Arredondo) that have seen too much and become too hardened. (The youngest can't even speak.) Estrella eventually joins them, as they seek their revenge.

The movie gently captures strange magic, like a batch of fish that have survived an upset tank by swimming in a huge puddle, or a burning piano, verging toward more sinister imagery, like trails of blood that seem to have minds of their own. But it also faces hard realism, choosing not to be shocked or angered by all the senseless violence, but rather saddened. Many have compared this film to Luis Bunuel's masterpiece Los Olvidados (1950). But it also deserves to stand alongside Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, in a little section of very special films. Guillermo Del Toro, Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman have championed it, and I will join in. If you can't see it in theaters, it will soon be making its debut on the great streaming service Shudder.

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