Animation as a medium is uniquely situated for experimentation. However, at times, the medium can feel as though it is a microcosm of cinema as a whole: tightly controlled in form and mode into hegemony by media corporations only interested in acquiring endless capital. Even Disney, a company that pioneered various animation techniques and technologies, has been limited in what kind of experiences they can create. Thus, despite the limitless potential of the medium, one in which creation is only limited by imagination, we are inundated with increasingly familiar and formulaic animation. So, when a film comes along and upends this hegemony, it is a cause for celebration. La Casa Lobo, an undeniably idiosyncratic work from Chilean artist-filmmakers Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, is such a film.
A loose reimagining of the Three Little Pigs set in Chile, La Casa Lobo is the story of a young girl running away from home and hiding in a dilapidated trash-filled house from a predacious wolf alongside two pigs who become her friends and family. This tale is framed within a mockumentary made by a compound celebrating the film's existence, made by a young girl who had priorly escaped but returned, implied against her will. What transpires within the film is nothing short of some of the most disturbing animation ever put to film, a shapeshifting nightmare in which internal becomes external, trash becomes sentient, animal and person mutate between each other, and an evocation of the psychological and sexual trauma its "filmmaker" has endured.
Evoking the horror-tinged fantasy animations of the Brothers Quay and Jan Švankmajer, it is hard not to be blown away by the formalism on display within the film. If it exists within the frame of a shot, it is utilized for animation. Walls become canvases for charcoal illustrations of the surrounding forest, depicted in an endless night where any creature might be found. Portraits move and scrawl across surfaces as though they are watching this isolated child with malicious intent. Trash littering the house likewise manifests sporadically as the invading forest and its wildlife. Characters melt and are molded from clay and plastics when they enter and leave scenes, evoking a feeling analogous to Adam seeing his nameless second wife created. Figures shapeshift through paper mache, wire, clay, etc. Its deeply uncanny aesthetics and formalism create a disturbing and distancing effect, simultaneously creating a feeling of detachment and immersion that can only be achieved in animation. Likewise, despite its disturbing aesthetics, it maintains a tactile, tangible charm inherent to stop motion, filtering horror through beauty. Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, who wrote, directed, edited, and animated the film, show complete mastery over the world they have created and the horrors therein.
Further complimenting the film's visual aesthetics is its sonic aesthetics, achieved without a score but rather a densely composed soundscape courtesy of Claudio Vargas and Pablo Bahamóndez. Their contributions help solidify the world León and Cociña have made, filling every movement with sickening, richly detailed sound and ambiance. The crinkling of plastics and papers, the natural noises of the woods just outside the walls, and the obscured sounds of movement by beasts yet to be observed just out of sight, solidifies the nightmarish experience of watching the film. These soundscapes frequent the cinema of León and Cociña, so their inclusion within a film of this scale and scope is not necessarily a surprise, but it is nonetheless impressive to see it so well accomplished.
The formalist attributes of this film are so striking that it could be forgiven if one fails to observe the film's fantastic political allegory. León and Cociña, much like another Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (Post Mortem (2010) and No (20112)), have utilized their art to comment and address Chile's recent fascist history and the damage caused therein. With this framing, the film within a film becomes a fantastic displacement for the attempted escape from sexual abuse and totalitarianism of the unseen protagonist, the fictional filmmaker behind the film within the film. Likewise, the mockumentary framing device of a fascist compound in Chile evokes memories of the Pinochet regime and the Nazi compound that effectively educated that regime in its methods and systems. It also offers a haunting portrayal of the indoctrination of white nationalism, as we see how normalized even in her fantasies the "filmmaker's" preference for white features and skins are when she transforms her companion pigs into humans, and then those brown children into white ones.
Further, along with these readings, the political interpretations are not limited to evocations of fascist history but also man's relationship with nature, not just in an existential sense, but through a material one as well. León and Cociña's work is interested in communicating ecological themes, especially the abuses committed against nature. In this case, the pollution littering the house mutates into nature, implicitly commenting that manufactured pollutants such as plastic and paper have become just as much a part of our natural world as animals and botanical life. This theme is exemplified through León's collaborations with Nina Wehrle (The Smaller Room, 2009) and Cristina Sitja Rubio (Strange Creatures, 2019), as well as León and Cociña's The Arc (2012). Coupled with La Casa Lobo, each short forms a distinctly ecological interested cinema that is equal parts hypnotic and nightmarish.
La Casa Lobo is an audacious, exhilarating film representing the politically charged and engaged cinema coming out of Chile right now, as well as some of the most awe-inspiring filmmaking. León and Cociña, with their feature debut, have not only further solidified their unique place within animation but also exemplified just how ambitious and vast their cinema can be. If nothing else, La Casa Lobo might act as a sign that animation might be more radical and challenging this subsequent decade, at least for those who seek it out.
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