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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2019

GoCritic! Review: The Wolf House


- This unique work of stop-motion animation is a disturbing fairy tale loosely based on a dark episode of Chile's history

Everybody knows the the story of The Three Little Pigs. The wolf huffs, puffs, and blows down two of the pigs' houses before devouring them. Conjuring up the dread that the protagonists of the classic fable might have felt in their last moments, Chilean directors Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña present a harrowing fairy tale rooted in a dark chapter of Chilean history in The Wolf House (Chile/Germany), their first feature film.

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This stop-motion movie, screened at the 29th edition of the World Festival of Animated Film - Animafest Zagreb, tells the story of Maria, a member of the sectarian community Colonia Dignidad, an actual cult founded by the German Nazi fugitive and child molester Paul Schäfer in the early 1960s.

Initially, Colonia Dignidad is introduced by Leon and Cociña as an agricultural commune aspiring to become some kind of utopia. Following a short presentation of the colony in a documentary-like video, the film takes a fantastical turn. Through the voice of a narrator representing the figure of Schäfer, here dubbed “The Wolf”, we find out that Maria has escaped the commune after being punished for losing three pigs. She takes refuge in an abandoned house in the forest, where two of the pigs she’d previously lost join her and turn into children: a little boy and girl. She decides to take care of them and raise them in isolation, cut off from the outside world and out of the reach of The Wolf.

León and Cociña tackle the issue of trauma through a powerful allegory. It’s a story which some audiences might find unpleasant to watch, but the viewer can’t help but admire its many artistic accomplishments.

The Chilean duo set out their film as if it were a sequence shot of a world in which paintings, sculptures and drawings which have been created and then captured on camera inside a real house interact with one another. In the ominous space where María and the children live, humans, pigs and furniture grow in front of our eyes, starting out as small shapes that gradually morph into bigger, more concrete objects. The camera is rarely fixed as layers and layers of papier mâché, scotch tape, cardboard, glue, paint and wood transform into the film’s characters and decors, showing the great pains the filmmakers have taken to ensure The Wolf House is a unique work of animation.

The film is both disturbing and fascinating to watch and, as Maria’s situation is one of both tenderness and horror, this duality is explored by the filmmakers in each and every scene. Although the story is loosely based on the real forms of abuse inflicted upon members of the Colonia Dignidad, the darkness of The Wolf House seeps in between the lines of the subtle fairy tale-like dialogues and is reflected in the unnerving design of its décor. While most of the narration rests on Maria’s shoulders, The Wolf’s interventions lend this tale a sense of impending doom where danger constantly lurks outside the walls, ready to huff, puff and destroy at any moment.

The screenplay, written by the filmmakers themselves alongside the actress Alejandra Moffat, presents the past wounds suffered by the protagonist in Colonia Dignidad as an inescapable element of her present. When she finds herself contending with hunger and “her children’s" growing awareness of their horrifying reclusion, it becomes clear that the bleakness of María’s situation doesn’t allow for the slightest glimmer of hope. In the end, it's not that she doesn’t know any better; instead, we feel that she may have become as corrupt as the evil she was looking to escape.

One of the film's biggest questions is, perhaps, a moral one: does evil simply invade people’s lives, unwanted and uninvited, or does it sometimes come from within? The Wolf House seems to lean towards the latter, with León and Cociña's particular animation approach allowing this disturbing story to grow, quite literally, before our eyes.

Excruciatingly painful at moments, but delightfully put together, The Wolf House is a more than welcome first feature film for León and Cociña, whose filmmaking career should be watched with interest by artists from all different disciplines beyond the world of cinema.

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