Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism


February 2006's Magical Realist Film List

Isn't It Romantic? Magical Realist Love Stories on Film

[What would magical realism be like without its romantic edge? Probably just political and violent and tragic. Magical realism needs not only comedy, but romance, to leaven its otherwise subversive undertone, to lend humanity and all its emotional foibles to the mix. Here, then, are a sampling of magical realist romance films to enjoy on Valentine's Day.]

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From "Romantic comedy that mixes magical realism with traditional Australian urban-outback contrasts. The plot centers on a bored woman (the eponymous Wendy) who conjures up the perfect lover, Jake, while her husband is out on the road suffering comical mishaps."

From Jeffrey Overstreet for Looking Closer: "The opposing forces of overbearing church law and life-embracing sweet-tooths inevitably clash in a surprisingly fiery fashion…"
From TKS for Margin: "The book and the film are two different things, really, but in this case, both are worth enjoying for their own merits. Perhaps a tad bit more magical realism occurs in the book, but if you're looking for a lovely romance (Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp have great chemistry) with a gutsy, political plot, then the movie will suit as well. Anyway, chocolate must be on the menu for any Valentine's Day observance!"

Kiss Me Goodbye
From "Not until three years after the death of her husband Jolly, Kay dares to move back into their former home, persuaded by her new fiancée Rupert. But soon her worst expectations come true, when not only her old memories haunt her, but also Jolly's ghost, who doesn't approve of her new mate."
From TKS for Margin: "This film is based on Jorge Amado's classic magical realist romance story, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands."

A Matter of Life and Death
From a user comment by Loretta for "[Writers] Powell and Pressburger created a seemingly simple, superbly crafted story—the power of love against 'the powers that be.' However, its deception lies in the complexity of its 'is it real or is it imaginary' premise. Basically, one could argue that it is simply a depiction of the effects of war on a young, poetically inclined airman during WWII. Or is it?"

The Two Way Mirror
From "…when looking into the glass, Susana is startled to see the image of a handsome soldier, Nicolas (from 1863), instead of her own reflection. It soon becomes obvious that he can see Susana as clearly as she can see him…"
From TKS for Margin: "Classic Gabo, and not well known, but a wonderfully romantic concept. This was made for Mexican television, so if you're interested in finding it for rent, check Hispanic video rental stores, university media collections specializing in Latino productions, or the foreign film section of your general interest video store."

Autumn 2005's Magical Realist Film List

Magical Realist Films Featuring Steve Martin

[MARGIN publisher and editor Sellman
adores the work of actor Steve Martin
and would like to recognize in this column
his attraction to the more imaginative
roles, directors and storylines coming out
of Hollywood

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LA Story
TKS: This 1991 film made it to #94 on the list of top 100 films as presented for Listology by member lbangs, who writes:

Steve Martin is one of the greatest modern screen comedians, and for my money, this film is his best. On the surface, this may appear to be a simple, flighty romantic comedy, but that really won't do. Not when this film satirizes, savages, and falls head over heels with Los Angeles in much the same way Woody Allen ridicules and loves New York. He often aims for a heightened magical realism that achieves a lyrical beauty to those willing to ride along on Martin's flights of imagination…In many ways, this is two completely different strains grafted into one another—a carving up of reality and an attempt to project the romantic images of the heart into celluloid fantasies on a film screen. I believe it is the tension between these two different beasts living in the same film that keeps this entire affair barely on the right side of cheesy or corny. It is a dangerous tightwire walk, but rather than falling into triteness, Martin walks into magic.
Leap of Faith
TKS: This wonderful film, about a fraudulent evangelist who manufactures miracles, only to witness a real one in a small farm town where the traveling revival's bus breaks down, has a bit of controversy tied to it. The storyline seemed to have been inspired by the "outing" of a similar, though real-life, fraudulent faith healer, Peter Popoff, who was also the subject of James Randi's book, The Faith Healers. Randi mounted accusations of plagiarism against Warner Brothers after he claimed to have seen the film twice and counted almost 20 direct "borrowings" from his book. All controversies aside, Leap of Faith may take down fraudulent evangelists, but it doesn't debunk the possibility of miracles. In fact, it distinguishes between the false and the real in a way that serves one of the greater purposes of magical realism; that is, to show that there exist mysteries which hold within them truths we can't always prove.

Little Shop of Horrors
TKS: I just saw a local theatrical rendition of this film and was reminded how the kitschy B-rated horror movie culture of the 60s was so much fun. One could argue that LSOH is fantasy: after all, a plant that wants to take over the world by consuming human flesh? Well, that's not so fantastical when you consider the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is no hybrid, but one variety of more than 500 perfectly natural organisms which survive by consuming animal life. One couldn't argue that LSOH is science fiction, either. In this film, we're walking into a flight of imagination that spends very little time discussing the scientific probability of man-eating plants taking over the world. This story is, on its surface, a romance, but rumbling beneath it all is a nondegradeable message about consumer society's threats to the planet.

TKS: Another wonderful romantic comedy starring Steve Martin. Who couldn't love this contemporary version of the classic story of Cyrano de Bergerac? C.D. Bales, the name of Martin's Cyrano-like character, has an unbelievable, if charming, personality to match his unbelievably long nose. The title character, played by Darrell Hannah, falls in love with the words Bales pens for a lovestruck cohort down at the fire station. You can't help but cheer for the Pinocchio-like Martin in this movie.

Spring 2005 Suggestions (if you can find them)
Iberian magical realism

[MARGIN editors Sellman and Deefholts
offer these suggested titles if you're looking
for magical realist films of an Iberian nature,
but be warned, most of these are second-hand
references based upon web research ~ if you find
any of these films and wish to review them for us,
drop us an email]

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Cria!, 1976, Carlos Saura, director (Spain)
Plot summary from the Chicago Reader: "An ambitious but unstructured psychological thriller (although that's too strong a word for this deliberately discreet film)… . Geraldine Chaplin and Ana Torrent act out a morbid roundelay of memory and desire, involving a schoolgirl who may or may not have murdered her parents."

Don Quixote, 2000, Peter Yates, director
Apollo Guide review: "This made for cable television adaptation of the classic story is a wonderful celebration of imagination, not only in the special effects department, but in the way it unfolds the plot as well. It shows that there’s nothing wrong with closing our eyes and reliving our favourite stories." [Editor's note: This made-for-TV film received mixed reviews]

The Exterminating Angel, 1962, Luis Buñuel, director
Review from Slant magazine: "If not Buñuel's greatest film, this unclassifiable creation must count as one of the most twisted stunts ever mounted for the screen. In the film, members of Mexico's bourgeois are invited to a dinner party at a mansion on Calle de la Providencia and for some unexplained reason find themselves incapable of exiting the house by night's end… Immediately, Buñuel points to all sorts of natural calls to action and rituals of bourgeois dependency."

Lost in La Mancha, 2002, documentary, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, directors
Roger Ebert discusses this documentary about a film that never saw the light of day: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanes, spout Till you have drench'd our steeples... History does not record whether these words of King Lear passed through [director] Terry Gilliam's mind as his beloved film about Don Quixote turned to ashes. It is hard to believe they did not. Lost in La Mancha, which started life as one of those documentaries you get free on a DVD, ended as the record of swift and devastating disaster."

Mararía, 1998, Antonio José Betancor, director
BoxOffice Reviews online writes: "Rafael Arozarena's textured novel of tragic love set against an island backdrop during the Spanish Civil War becomes a beautiful, lyrical film in the hands of director Antonio Jose Betancor. Superbly photographed and exceptionally well acted, it's an otherwise conventional love triangle that somehow rises above convention by virtue of narrative and thematic nuance. Put simply, what's going on isn't really what's going on."

El Quijote de Miguel de Cervantes, 1991 (miniseries), Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, director, script and dialog by Camilo José Cela, miniseries presented en Español
Film comment by reviewer Keith J. Hatcher/La Rioja, Spain: "Whether you are a literature lover or whether you are a discerning viewer of films or TV series, you cannot fail to be charmed by this superb transformation of the great classic by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra for the small screen."

Simon of the Desert, 1965, Luis Buñuel, director, in Spanish with subtitles
Plot summary from the Chicago Reader: "Forty-three minutes of perfect filmmaking. Luis Buñuel tells the story of San Simeon Stylites, the desert martyr who stood for 25 years atop a pillar, and the efforts of the devil to coax him down. Since the devil is played by Mexican musical star Silvia Pinal, her temptations aren't the usual ones. Buñuel's wit is piercingly sharp, his timing impeccable, and his visual style superbly unobtrusive and naturalistic."

The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973, Víctor Erice, director
A review from BBC films: "[This film] was made towards the end of General Franco's dictatorship, but which unfolds in rural Castille shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1940.… Young Ana is both captivated and puzzled by the screening of James Whale's Frankenstein in her village cinema, particularly by the scene in which the creature meets the little girl.… Her elder and more knowing sister Isabel mischievously explains that the monster of the film doesn't die: instead he survives as a living spirit and that if Ana closes her eyes, she can summon him herself."

Winter 2005's Magical Realist Film List

[MARGIN editors Sellman and Deefholts
offer viewing tips for movies featuring
angels at their magical realist best

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City of Angels
TKS: This mainstream pleaser is based upon the film classic, Wings of Desire (see below). A heart surgeon falls in love with an angel, but only after setting some ground rules. After all, it's her job to save lives, not his. More in line with conventional angel flix but charming nonetheless, this story explores the choices between earthly love and celestial duty. Stars Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage.

SLD: A fun and irreverent Kevin Smith offering that's cheeky and good-hearted. The two fallen angels, Loki and Bartleby, are flawed and likeable in their quest to return to the heaven from whence they were banished by God. But the plot thickens when it is revealed that they are pawns in a far more complex plot—and that their return to heaven could have far more dire consequences than they suspect. Part of the charm of the film is that while it plays havoc with church doctrine, it is inclusive and affectionate in its depiction of faith—and is as much about ideas as it is about beliefs.

The Prophecy
SLD: Not a particularly good film, really. It hardly distinguishes itself, except in that it takes the portrayal of angels from Wings of Desire several steps further, so that they become more ambiguous. These are dark and stylish creatures who manage to seem both intriguing and sinister in their alienness—we do not mistake these beings for humans, but neither are they necessarily our allies or guardians. I particularly remember the way they roost as being creepy—a simple but effective way of portraying the Otherness of these angels. And, likewise, their interests and motivations are also Other—they tread the line between the divine and the monstrous in a way that makes you think back to some of the terror of actual Biblical potrayals of angels. It makes you wonder where we got the whole notion of pretty, benevolent, feminine creatures floating about and blowing trumpets out of the Biblical origins of the creatures.

Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes (A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings)
TKS: Based on the classic short story by Gabriel García Márquez. Captures many elements of the landscape which saturate Gabo's novels. Naturally, the written story is better: it is hard to capture the complicated beauty of Gabo's writing in film, I think. The mistaken message one might take away from this film is that humanity possesses absolutely no redeemable worth. How depressing! But readers of the original story, having already been exposed to the sensuous, tragic and yet comedic language of García Márquez (and likely his other works), are destined to come away satisfied.

What Dreams May Come
TKS: This magical realist film, while definitely borrowing elements of heaven and angeldom, seems as much to be about the depth of the soul and the strength of human love. The Nielsen family falls apart from the beginning. The two children die, followed by the death of their father, Chris Nielsen (played by Robin Williams) and the consequent suicide of his wife Annie (played by Annabella Sciorra). However, Annie's soul does not end up in the same sphere as Chris's. Cuba Gooding Jr. is cast as the angel that Chris enlists, with the help of a "tracker" (Max von Sydow) to hunt down Annie in an emotional beyond-life-and-death reunion. Spectacular fantasy elements move this film far ahead of other typical "angel movies" in terms of depth and story quality.

The Wings of Desire
SLD: A wistful, pensive Wim Wenders piece very much in the melancholy cinematic tradition that Germans seem to do so well—think Klaus Kinski's Aguirre: The Wrath of God or his remake of Nosferatu—in a way, they are both about monstrous characters, but their monstrosity is elevated to tragedy through the portrayal of the immense solitudes against which they are, in some sense, pitted. The Wings of Desire is about a different kind of outsider who yearns to feel and to be—an angel who wants to become human. The original German title translates as the sky over Berlin," and like the sky, Wenders's angels see all but do not intervene in the lives of those whom they witness. This is not a film about action, so much as it is about mood and being. Wenders takes his time with his subject, allowing you to inhabit their spaces, before he creates an intriguing reversal by making one of them yearn to inhabit ours—to see and feel and live as we do.

Autumn 2004's Magical Realist Film List
Creepy Magical Realism

[MARGIN editors Sellman and Deefholts
gives some viewing tips for movies to show
over the Halloween weekend

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The Birds
TKS: You have to have Hitchcock in this list! This famous 1963 movie, where fowl fly afoul, makes for classic horror on a Saturday night. It's also an interesting study in a narrative technique sometimes referred to as the "detached-center maze." Also, the film has been compared on a literary scale with the likes of Shakespeare for its demonstration of "the language of the birds."

Bringing Out The Dead
TKS: This film is a study of the dead rising. It's no coincidence the story is set at Eastertime. Nicholas Cage plays a burned-out ambulance driver who begins to encounter all the dead people he has been unable to save. The story itself isn't creepy, but the notion, of one's continuous and inevitable descent into a self-hewn hell, is not only creepy, but relevant.

The Butcher Boy
SLD: A Neil Jordan film about a troubled boy whose dangerous and oppressive rage begins to spill out into the world around him, transforming reality into a dark, personal territory of violence and dysfunction. Very graphic and not appropriate for children. Watch for Sinead O'Connor as the Virgin Mary. As incongruous—and intentionally iconoclastic—a juxtaposition of religious and popular iconography as Alanis Morisette's star turn as God in Dogma.

The Fly
TKS: This is the ultimate creepy metamorphosis movie. Okay, calling it magical realism might be a stretch, as elements of science fiction define the shaping events. Redux: An eccentric scientist studying material transformations experiments upon himself in one of his transformation booths. The experiment is a success, until he realizes that he's shared the booth (and a transformation) with a common housefly. Still, the story is mostly a personal account of the man's horrific physiological changes, as witnessed by a reporter, as well as a classic manifestation of the law of unintended consequences.

In Dreams
SLD: Another Neil Jordan piece. In this case, it features the familiar, creepy trope of a woman dreaming true, and the nightmares impinging, undermining and ultimately destroying her stable existence. It has been a while since I saw it, but as I recall, it seems to touch once more on some of the themes Jordan explored in Company of Wolves (based on the Angela Carter story). There is that same sense of the darker side of fairy tales. I remember lush visuals and the rich red of apples.

Lost Highway
SLD: Another intuitive, often cryptic offering from David Lynch. The voyeurism and invasive intimacy of the opening vignette creeped me out for days.

La Llorona (1933)
TKS: Satellite dish viewers and those with a good connection to old films and/or Mexican films will appreciate what may be the most faithful version of the "wailing woman" story, a.k.a. La Llorona, ever brought to the screen. It's not as splashy as today's horror flicks, but it retains its magical realist sensibility (when modern horror often doesn't) by portraying Catholic morality and "pagan" beliefs in the telling of this classic Mexican legend. (Note: There's a 1998 short film of the same title worth seeing as well, if you can get your hands on it.)

The Mothman Prophecies
SLD: Mysterious, unsettling happenings and the unexplained appearance of a moth-like creature as a harbinger of disaster set up this film. Though it is intriguing enough and definitely creepy at times, so long as you don't expect an answer to the overarching question of the film, you may be satisfied by its resolution.

The Sixth Sense
SLD: If you haven't seen this one and don't know the "secret" (not altogether likely, but we can hope), it definitely is a film to creep you out. Haley Joel Osment carries the role of the young protagonist very believably and it is the combination of mood and the sense of his taut fear that makes us afraid.

Sleepy Hollow
SLD: Tim Burton's fun, but macabre, remake of the old Disney cartoon and the even older Washington Irving story. Creepy at times and chock full of ambiance, the film is ideally watched on a gloomy autumn or winter's day. Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane is competent but effete, and the inherent irony of a coroner with a weak stomach and delicate sensibilities adds a touch of comic relief to the material. It is also nice to see a filmic take on the folklore and superstitions of early America made real.

Twin Peaks, the TV series and its motion-picture prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
TKS: I found much of Lynch's breakthrough television series equal parts creepy, artsy and funny. I only recommend the movie for fans of the show. The first season is available on DVD; rumor has it the second will be released in 2005? We're keeping our ears to the ground. The musical score is especially creepy for both the series and the film, as is the question that still haunts me more than a dozen years later—Just exactly who is Bob?

SLD: Another M. Night Shyamalan mood piece about self-discovery. The muted saturation of colour may seem a little cliché nowadays, but still adds to the somber mood of the film, as a man struggles to comprehend mysterious revelations about his own nature. The climactic sequence, when he comes to accept who he is and is suddenly able to acquire disturbing insights about those around him is unsettling and even horrifying. (See my previous review at the link above.)

TKS: I remember seeing this in the theater with my best friend, who watched it mostly from between the fingers covering her face. Wolf is a thrilling contemporary edition of the classic lycanthropic legend. It provides some good scare moments but is not overwrought with horror devices, and the story cleaves mostly to a strong, character-driven plot.

Spring 2004 Suggestions (if you can find them)
Caribbean magical realism

[MARGIN editors Sellman and Deefholts
offer these suggested titles if you're looking
for magical realist films of a Caribbean nature,
but be warned, these are second-hand references
based upon web research ~ if you find any of
these films and wish to review them for us,
drop us an email]

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The Devil's Daughter, 1939, Arthur H. Leonard, director plot summary: "Sylvia Walton of Harlem inherits a Jamaican banana plantation and returns to manage it. Since her arrival, there's been no sign of her disinherited half-sister Isabelle, who ran the plantation until their father's death. But Sylvia, her two rival suitors, and her comic-relief servant Percy are disturbed by the constant, growing sound of drums. Meanwhile, in hiding, Isabelle schemes to regain her former place by manipulating local 'obeah' superstition. All-black cast."

The Lunatic, 1992, Lol Creme, director
Local eccentric undergoes "civilizing" by seductive and corrupting female tourist—ensuing escapades turn the local community upside-down. A comedic fable.

Ophelia's Opera, 2001, Abiola Abrams, director
Award-winning magical realist short film where each character communicates through a different lyrical language and aspects of obeah are explored.

Strange Paradise , 1969, Herbert Kenwith/Herb Roland, directors plot summary: "A Gothic soap opera that took place on a small Caribbean island, Strange Paradise featured the occult in the story of wealthy but cursed Jean Paul Desmond who resided in his castle Maljardin with his servants Raxl, a voodoo priestess, and Quito, a mute strongman. When the series began, he was mourning the deaths of his wife Erica and their unborn child. His desire to bring his wife back to life resulted in more tragedy. Eventually Maljardin burned down and the action moved to Desmond Hall, the family home in Canada, and many new characters were introduced."

Venera Creola, 1969, Lorenzo Ricciardi, director plot summary: "Two villages are situated on a little island in the Caribbean Sea: Santana and Cienfuegos. Every year there is a challenge between the two villages, a challenge between the best fighting-cocks the two villages can get. This year Cienfuegos's cock is the favourite. It is Melchiorre's cock. So the personage of Santana make a spell and a dog kills Melchiorre's cock. Melchiorre, after running the risk of being lynched, must leave in search of a new cock to win the challenge."

Wide Sargasso Sea, 1993, John Duigan, director
This film is adapted from Jean Rhys' famous novel, in which Rhys traces the early life of the "madwoman in the attic" of Charlotte Brontë's gothic classic, Jane Eyre.

January 2004's Top Five Magical Realist Films
Winter's Tales

[MARGIN editors Sellman and Deefholts
gives some viewing tips for movies to cozy
up with in case you haven't had your fill of
snow and ice this season

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Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
SLD: This one is interesting. It's the first feature length film made in Inuit language and is a dramatization of one of their ancient myths -- that of Atanarjuat, the fast runner, with mythic and fantastical resonances, though all presented without any fancy effects. A glimpse into a different world for certain. And a winter's tale as well, as most of it takes place in the northern winter.

Hudsucker Proxy
TKS: Call this a Horatio Alger story if you must, but Hudsucker surpasses expectations by narrating the protagonist's rise through an irreal interpretation one needs to see to appreciate (in true Coen Bros style). I loved Jennifer Jason Leigh's hyper-classic performance, especially.
SLD: This one's key centrepiece of a scene is during New Year's Eve. A great Tim Robbins flick with a rags-to-riches storyline done in an extraordinary format.

Name of the Rose
SLD: There are a few slightly irreal elements, I think -- the library, the deaths etc. There is certainly something attenuated about it.
TKS: The shades of the grotesque in this adaptation of Eco's complicated book, and the labyrinthine library, lend it a magical realist air.

Russian Ark
SLD: If you haven't seen this, I recommend you do. I'd also suggest seeing it in a theatre. It's set in the winter and is definitely magical realist in premise, though without any linear plot, per se. It takes place at the Hermitage museum in Russia and seeks to evoke different moments in the history of the building (and of Russia) in its scope. The thing that is most remarkable about this film, however, is that it is one single shot. No cuts as we go from room to room, from era to era, past different actors all perfectly orchestrated. We have no glimpses of lighting people, and the fact that it's all a single shot acquires a breathtaking suspense of its own as the film progresses. Quite remarkable.

Sweet Hereafter
TKS: This film is an emotional, structural and intellectual puzzle. The frozen mountaintops that provide the backdrop mean you'll be needing something hot to drink later, to warm the chill and biding sadness it leaves behind.
SLD: It's set in a small town and uses the structural myth of the Pied Piper as a metaphor for the tragedy that befalls the citizens -- I think that structural myth adds a certain resonance and magical realist feel to it. It's more dreamy than explicitly magical realist, but I found it a very powerful film when I saw it.

Looking for a comprehensive list of films that play with magical realist themes, structures or ideas? Visit the Magic Realist Writers International Network for an ongoing archive project featuring titles and producers of magical realist films worldwide.

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Rev'd 2006/02/10