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Magic Realism Goes to the Movies

Cinema is the most holistic of art forms. It is visual, stealing from the tool chests of painters and photographers. It is text-based, drawing on the potentials of literature and drama. Finally, film is musical; filmmakers have never been bashful about ransacking the finest and most varied musical libraries for their scores and soundtracks.

Given their holistic nature, perhaps it is no surprise that movies have recently gravitated toward magic realism, a literary genre that tries to wrap itself around all dimensions of reality. It is magic in its inclusion of the transcendent and the "fantastic." It is realism in that it is not set in a wholly fictional world, such as Tolkein's Middle Earth. Nor do its characters move back and forth between two separate worlds, like the children in Lewis's Narnia tales, who dwell in "our" world (wartime Britain) until they pass through a portal (the wardrobe) into another, enchanted universe. Instead, in the novels of such magic realists as Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Isabel Allende, and Alice Hoffman, the ordinary and the extraordinary are inextricably interwoven. Now filmmakers have begun to exploit the potential of these conventions.

A salient theme of magic realist films is that people have their lives transformed once they get at least one foot outside the modern, technological world. For instance, director Mike Newell's British protaganists in Enchanted April (1992) find realistic magic at a villa overlooking the Italian Riviera. Newell's Into the West (1993) has two Irish children discover life-giving marvels in the real world when they are borne along by the animals and folk epistemology of Gypsies who ramble the countryside in horse-drawn caravans.

Such a transformation is at the heart of Bill Forsyth's quirky classic Local Hero (1983). Forsyth's movie concerns a Houston oilman who is thrust out of his high-tech world into a Scottish coastal village. The character, played by Peter Riegert, is charged with buying out the entire village ...

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