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Mainstream Success of Del Toro Film May Bode Well for Spanish-Language Cinema

'El Laberinto del Fauno' Has U.S. Record Box Office

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Spanish film poster of 'El Laberinto del fauno'
For those of us who are learning Spanish or enjoy using it as a second language, there is perhaps no easier and more fun way to become familiar with the varieties of spoken Spanish than to make the movie theater a "classroom." Spain, Mexico and Argentina all have active film industries, and filming sometimes takes place in other countries of Latin America as well. And when you get a chance to see their films, you can experience Spanish as it is spoken in real life.

Unfortunately, those chances don't happen very often in the United States and many other English-speaking areas, especially if you don't live in a major city that has at least one art-house theater. Typical suburban and rural movie theaters seldom, if at all, play Spanish-language movies.

But could a change be coming? For the first time in a decade and a half, a Spanish-language movie has broken out of the movie ghetto of art-house aficionados and native speakers. In early February 2007, El laberinto del fauno, also known as "Pan's Labyrinth," passed $21.7 million is U.S. box office receipts, making it the most successful Spanish-language film of all time in the U.S. The record was previously been held by Como agua por chocolate ("Like Water for Chocolate"), a Mexican romantic drama period piece.

That doesn't exactly put Laberinto in blockbuster territory, but it does put it in the upper stratosphere for foreign-language films, Mel Gibson productions excluded. Laberinto was in the top 10 at the box office for three weekends before breaking the record, and in wide release it was showing on more than 1,000 screens nationwide.

Laberinto's success can be attributed to several factors:

  • Unlike many art-house Spanish-language films, such as most of those made by Spain's Pedro Almodóvar, Laberinto has an accessible story line. There's no convoluted plot, no necessary-to-understand deep symbolism, no cultural references to confuse the foreign viewer. Even if you go to the movie not knowing who Franco was, you'll understand the motives of the soldiers in this movie.
  • Unlike some art-house Spanish films whose sexual content is so strong they get an NC-17 rating (for adults only in the U.S.) and thus won't be shown by many mainstream theaters, Laberinto has none. While the violence is extremely strong, that is less of a barrier to widespread showing of a film than explicit sex.
  • Several martial-arts foreign-language films have drawn large audiences in recent years, and the use of subtitles hasn't seemed to hurt Gibson's success as a film director. Perhaps American audiences are becoming more accepting the ideas of subtitled movies.
  • This film is rich in visuals, not dialogue. So there is less subtitle-reading required than in many other foreign films, and very little is lost in the translation.
  • Although they're not household names, the film's director, Guillermo del Toro, and one of the stars, Doug Jones, were already known to American audiences for 2004's "Hellboy" and other films.
  • Laberinto had the backing of Picturehouse, a major motion-picture studio.
  • The film garnered six Academy Award nominations, a fact played up in advertising.
  • For better or worse, this film was promoted while underplaying the fact it is foreign-language film. According to accounts in various Internet discussion groups, many people arrived at the theater not knowing they would be seeing something in Spanish.
As upbeat as all that may sound in terms of seeing a better selection of Spanish-language films at your local theater, at least three factors work in the opposite direction:
  • Almodóvar's Volver had many of the same things going for it as did Laberinto: It is said to be the most accessible of Almodóvar's films, it had major studio backing, and one of the stars, Penélope Cruz, has strong crossover appeal. Yet the film struggled to get over $10 million at the box office, about the maximum for a top art-house film, and has yet to reach much of the mainstream audience despite Cruz's Academy Award nomination as best actress.
  • English remains the dominant language of the film industry, even in areas where Spanish and other languages are spoken, so there's little incentive to put a lot of money into a Spanish-language film. Not all that long ago, I visited a multiplex is Guayaquil, Ecuador, and all the movies save one were in English. And that one exception was María llena eres de gracia, a U.S. production.
  • Even though some 30 million U.S. residents speak Spanish at home, that market has yet to be specifically exploited in a major way by the major film studios. In many U.S. communities with a large Spanish-speaking population, it is easier to find (especially in video stores) cheaply produced Mexican movies than quality productions that might appeal to a broader English-speaking audience.
So what will 2007 bring? At this writing, there are no Spanish-language blockbusters on the horizon. That's not surprising, however; specialty movies that stand the best chance of picking up a mainstream audience tend to be released in the U.S. late in the year, as were El laberinto del fauno and Volver, in part so they can pick up buzz from the various film awards. The good news is that the success of del Toro's film shows that the right Spanish-language film can find an audience, even in the U.S.

For my take on El laberinto del fauno as a movie and some linguistic notes on the film, see the following page.

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