Childhood in International Films

During the first half of January, for several decades, the Palm Springs International Film Festival has been a showcase for hundreds of new foreign films created in dozens of countries around the globe, from Australia to Yemen. The majority are adult films, but some twenty or so fall (sometimes uneasily) into the festival’s categories of “family friendly” or “coming of age.” To identify the best of these, in 2007 this reporter joined other journalists in covering this ten-day event. But while the international press was intent on red-carpet interviews with Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet, and Cate Blanchett, your own correspondent spent hours a day watching films in those two categories to come up with his own top three (below).

Pan’s Labyrinth, Mexico
The very first film I wish to commend to attention–and this needs to be emphasized– is not suitable for children; indeed, it is rated “R” because of occasional graphic violence that we would associate with horror films. Nonetheless, director Guillermo Del Toro’s new work will be of extraordinary interest to parents and to other adults who are interested in (or need to be reminded of) the curious ways children think and see the world. In other words, it is not for children but about children.

The film is half realistic story (set in Spain during the 1940s and the revolutionary struggles that brought Generalissimo Franco to power) and half fantasy (the story of ten-year-old Ofelia who meets a faun straight out of Narnia and wanders into a wonderland akin to Alice’s). Pan’s Labyrinth weaves together everything together by a childhood logic. On the fantasy side, we encounter: fairy tales and their three tasks, drops of blood signaling adolescence, ancient superstitions involving the mandrake (that fabled and screaming, human-like plant), and a baby-chewing monster borrowed from Goya’s “black” drawing of Saturn. On the realistic side, we encounter: Ofelia’s impoverished and pregnant mother, her military and sadist step-father (who seems to have stepped out of the famous “eyeball” scene of Buñuel’s film), and the parent-like housekeeper Mercedes (played by actress Maribel Verdú best known for her very opposite and salacious role in the film Y tu mamá también).

Movie critics for the New York Times have designated in the Best Foreign Film of the Year, agreeing with the panel who chose it as the best picture at the Palm Springs Film Festival. It is also interesting to note that Pan’s Labyrinth was produced by another Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón whose film Children of Men (a futuristic story about a world that has gone childless until one pregnant woman is found) has recently been released. Add in director Alejandro González Iñárritu (whose recent film Babel is garnering attention) and you have to say Mexican film making is hot. Look at these films in themselves, and you have to say their recurring theme is the importance of childhood.

Hula Girls, Japan
A coal-mining company in northern Japan is about to close it doors forever and put several thousand people out of work when someone comes up with a wacky idea to save the town by creating an Hawaiian theme park in this frozen and barren outback. That means trucking in palm trees (and keeping them warm with household heaters) and recruiting local schoolgirls to become hula dancers. Based on a real story, Hula Girls pits the skeptical and angry and unemployed townspeople against a group of rural teens who dream of saving their town by exchanging their school uniforms for grass skirts and shimmying their hips in unaccustomed ways that their parents would disapprove of.

The film features the girls’ struggles: to win the approval of their sensei or dancing teacher, to stand up for their rights and for each other when they are abused by drunken louts, to win attention for their theme park by traveling all around Japan in a broken bus, and finally to enlist their estranged parents and the town’s disbelievers into an enterprise that seems unlikely to succeed but finally does.

This is a lovely and inspiring family film. At its heart is a famous Japanese saying: Deru kugi wa utareru (“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”). But, then, nonconformity is a worldwide issue and marks this film as a touching story of adolescence.

Vitus, Switzerland
If Hula Girls is about “fitting in,” Vitus is unabashedly about “standing out.” This film is about a child prodigy; and as director Fredi M. Murer observed in a discussion after its showing, this story especially appeals to our own childhood feelings of “exceptionality.” How many remember, when we were young, our distinct conviction that we were bound for some kind of singular greatness? Sure to become the world’s best baseball player, fastest pilot, most skilled ballerina, and the like? How many middle-schoolers still await discovery as rock-and-roll performers when they rehearse in front of mirrors? To be sure, growing up, each of us may have settled into our own kind of ordinariness; but the Story of the Prodigy still speaks to our unanswered childhood wishes and certainties.

Vitus, then, is a precocious eleven-year-old and piano-playing genius; and as Murer observed, he was lucky to employ in the film a real child prodigy (the gifted musician Teo Gheorghiu) to play this character. To be sure, Vitus is pushed too hard by his aspiring mother and would rather spend time with his eccentric grandfather, even if that means feigning stupidity and ordinariness for a time. On top of that, this youngster is in love with the older girl who is his babysitter

The best scenes in this comic film are those where Vitus must be a problem solver. When his grandfather needs money to repair a leaking roof, the boy genius takes out a week to learn about the stock market and earns the old man millions, enough not only to fix his roof but to buy the old man an airplane. Wanting to court his babysitter, the eleven-year-old earns millions more in the market and gets his own luxury apartment in Zurich. And when his father is fired from his job by an officious boss, Vitus buys the business, fires the boss, and installs his own father as CEO. Part Home Alone and part A Thousand Clowns, this film was my favorite of all those shown at the Palm Springs Festival.

Each of these films can be purchased as DVD’s from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the like.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice.

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Jerry Griswold

Jerry Griswold

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.