One of the main characteristics of magic realism is that it eludes definition. Sure, the Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a few definitions, including “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” It’s a start. But as the genre has made its way into other art forms such as film, it has become harder to define.
The point of this literary device–made famous by authors like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges and Arturo Uslar-Pietri–is to renounce the need for clear definition and accept the magical elements as part of life. The magical elements are largely used to give a better understanding of reality. They reflect the human experience by illustrating emotions that can be hard to describe with words.
Magic realism–or magical realism–is most effective when it’s blended so seamlessly into reality that viewers don’t bother to try to figure what’s behind the magic. Instead, it’s best to allow your imagination to lead you into the wondrous world of the story being told. To celebrate the blend of magic and reality, here are 20 Great Moments of Magic Realism in Film.
20. Electrick Children (Rebecca Thomas, 2012)
In the innocent, sheltered mind of Rachel (Julia Garner) anything seems possible because she’s seen so little of the world. So it’s not crazy for this 15-year-old, brought up in a fundamentalist Mormon community, to believe that she got pregnant from listening to music on an old cassette tape. As this sweet story about the search for identity unfolds, viewers are coaxed into believing it as well.
Rachel and her sisters learn about love and sex from their mother’s stories, which hide the details behind a veil of mysticism. But Rachel finally gets to experience them firsthand when she finds a tape that holds a cover of The Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone.” Listening to this music is such a transformative experience for Rachel, and it gives her such strong sensations, that she’s convinced that it’s responsible for her immaculate conception.
The magical tape sends Rachel on a journey in the search of love, and we get so caught up in this naive girl’s first visit to the outside world that we no longer wonder how exactly she could possibly be pregnant.
19. A Little Princess (Alfonso Cuarón, 1995)
The ultimate story about the power of fairy tales, this film was a staple in the childhoods of many. Adapted from the 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess tells the tale of a young girl, Sara (Leisel Matthews), who grew up in India listening to magical stories, and now finds herself an outsider in a strict boarding school. Her father (Liam Cunningham) has always told her that all girls are princesses, but this idea is challenged in her new environment.
While Sara’s stories are not encouraged by Miss Minchin, the other girls marvel at her fantastical tales. But they prove to be more than just that. These stories have taught Sara compassion and bravery, and it’s these attributes that save her when her happiness and freedom are at stake.
This tear-jerking adventure reinforces the importance of telling children fairy tales and ensuring that they grow up believing that people can be good. As Sara’s father always reminds her, “magic has to be believed.”
18. The Future (Miranda July, 2011)
Narrated by the high-pitched, almost pathetic voice of an injured cat, The Future defies it viewers to get past the cutesy, self-conscious details and understand the emotions that they try to amplify.
Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are in their mid-thirties and realize that they haven’t accomplished as much as they thought. They try to fill the void by committing to something, namely an injured cat. In the month before they can bring the new pet home, they try to shake up their lives.
Their crisis is tinged with little magical moments, aside from the narrating cat. In his search to slow down the oncoming future, Jason develops a relationship with the moon, and even finds a way to stop time. While the metaphor is obvious–Jason and Sophie are not ready to be adults–it’s a simple image that many can relate to. We all wish we had the power to give ourselves a little more time.
17. Cashback (Sean Ellis, 2006)
A young painter named Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) finds that he has an extra eight hours to fill when his first breakup leaves him with a bad case of insomnia. So he starts working the night shift at a supermarket, where he has to find a way to fill those boring hours. He soon realizes that he can manipulate time to the point where he can freeze it.
This young artist likens manipulating time to an art, and he uses his newfound powers to admire beauty in its frozen state. Yes, he has some issues with objectifying women that stem back to his youth. But true beauty shines through when he uses his power to get closer to the girl he loves.
The sweetest, saddest moment comes when he knows he’s ruined his chances with Sharon (Emilia Fox), so he stops time just before she walks out the door and spends two days just sitting by her, admiring her and trying to think of a way to show her his love.
16. The One I Love (Charlie McDowell, 2014)
There’s no way to talk in depth about this film without completely spoiling the premise that makes it so weird and unexpected. It’s way more fun to watch The One I Love when you have no idea what’s going on, so we’ll stick to the basics: Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) are trying to work out their issues of trust and revive their marriage.
Their marriage counselor (Ted Danson) sends them on a couple’s retreat, ensuring them that all couples that he’s sent there have come back renewed. What they find in the guest house certainly proves that to be true, but you’ll have to watch to find out how. The point is that the film blends reality and elements of sci fi that go relatively unexplored to understand what it can feel like to be in a long-term relationship.
The result is a sometimes funny, sometimes unsettling glimpse into relationships, identity and how hard it is to actually know someone.
15. The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, 2006)
Writer and director Michel Gondry is known for his seamless use of magical realism in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He gets to play more with the blurred lines between dream and reality in the lesser known film, The Science of Sleep.
Artist and inventor Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal) has always had trouble differentiating between the real world and the world of his dreams. While others don’t seem to understand the limbo world he lives in, he finds a fellow creative soul in his neighbor Stéphanie. He can be himself around her because she accepts his world, and doesn’t think his silly little inventions are any stranger than her own creations.
While it’s easy to identify his outlandish dreams–the giant papier mache hands are not a subtle hint–it becomes more muddled when Stéphanie and Stéphane interact. Together they can make his one-second time machine work and they can turn cellophane into water.