Friday, February 23, 2007

Film Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"

Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth

Review by Jeffrey Overstreet
posted 12/29/06

"You're too old to be filling your head with such nonsense."

So says Carmen (Ariadna Gil), whose 12-year old daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is reading a fairy tale storybook in the car, early in Guillermo Del Toro's film Pan's Labyrinth.

Are fairy tales just a waste of time? Should children be allowed to read such stuff? And what about adults? Should we bother with movies about magic and enchantment—like Pan's Labyrinth? Or is it all just childish madness and reckless escapism?

Clearly, Del Toro believes that fairy tales have something to say to grownups. Otherwise, he would not have crafted an R-rated story about make-believe monsters. Don't take your kids to this bloody, nightmarish tale. It's disturbing and often terrifying.

But it's also heartfelt and deeply meaningful. By contrasting the conflict of good and evil in the real world with the dramas that take place in fantasy land, Del Toro reminds us that children's stories—especially those dark and twisted fables from the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen—can give us rewarding perspectives on troubling realities. Sometimes, grownups need fairy tales as badly as children do.

It's easy to see what's sending Ofelia off to wonderland. Her pregnant mother is moving them into the Spanish countryside so they can live under the protection of the unborn baby's father, Vidal (Sergi López), a monstrous captain in Spain's civil guard. But Vidal doesn't have much care for his family, outside of his desire for a son. He's more intent on crushing a force of rebels who are resisting the government's oppression. While the Spanish Civil War fades and World War II intensifies, Ofelia's world seems to be spiraling out of control.

As J.R.R. Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis, those who are most hostile to the idea of escape tend to be jailers. Ofelia wants to be—no, needs to be—elsewhere, and her parents are in no mood to help her.

Like Chihiro at the beginning of Spirited Away, Ofelia discovers a gateway to wonderland just beyond a stone guardian who stands in the trees near the village where Vidal is stationed. Then, a curious creature with wings guides her into the most intriguing labyrinth we've seen on the big screen since, well, Labyrinth, twenty years ago.

And when Ofelia meets the host of this mysterious maze, he's even more otherworldly than David Bowie, who ruled the netherworld of Jim Henson's 1986 film. He's a faun with massive horns and a menacing stride. Thanks to the title, some moviegoers will worry that he is a representation of the "Horned God" born of Greek mythology who goes by the name of Pan. But no, this isn't a figure meant to represent male sexuality. The English-language title of the film was chosen for marketing purposes—it "sounded better" than the proper translation of the Spanish title, The Labyrinth of the Faun.

The faun (played with a spooky beastliness by Hellboy's Doug Jones) is not a gentle Yoda, but he's not the Devil either. Instead, this unpredictable creature manifests the untrustworthy aspects of the natural world. "I am the mountain, the woods, the earth," he explains. "I'm a faun." Don't worry, this isn't a pantheistic story. The faun doesn't demand worship, although he clearly enjoys his power. He prefers to bless, punish, and issue unreasonable demands.

And so he informs Ofelia that she is, in fact, an ancient princess who has forgotten her true home—news that would undoubtedly delight an imaginative girl. In order to find that home, Ofelia must complete three tasks (of course). She must confront a giant toad. She must steal a dagger from the chambers of the Pale Man (a ghastly devil played, again, by Doug Jones). And then, she must employ the dagger per the faun's instructions to break the enemy's power.

Back in "the real world," Vidal is beginning to realize that he may have a traitor in his camp. And so he begins a campaign of interrogation and torture to root out those who sympathize with the rebels. All suspects are presumed guilty until proven innocent—and either way, he's likely to kill them.

A slave to his superiors, Vidal is an automaton of evil, a man who has silenced his conscience. He represents the opposite of Ofelia, whose decisions reflect a healthy conscience. His choices are not choices at all, but merely blind obedience. "To obey without questions," says a defiant rebel to Vidal, "that's something only people like you can do."

What is Ofelia's secret? It is her capacity for believing in the "nonsense" of storytelling. Again and again, the films of 2006—Stranger than Fiction, Flags of Our Fathers, The Fountain, The Science of Sleep—have illustrated this. Story can help us endure chaos and suffering. Narrative gives us a framework for our lives in which we are able to apprehend meaning. Even Todd Field's Little Children suggests we'll understand our world better if we consider it through the lens of "grim" fairy tales.

Ofelia finds no comfort or help from religion, for the clergy in Vidal's company are clearly corrupt. She turns instead to another source of understanding—the light of imagination. And there, we see that the greatest power in her world is not fascism, nor a faun, but love itself.

The story comes to vivid life in shadowy worlds—both realistic and fantastic—that merge seamlessly through Eugenio Cabellero's production design, captured by Guillermo Navarro's expert cinematography. Enhanced by a lush, resonant score that recalls Howard Shore's themes for The Lord of the Rings, Del Toro's wonderland is populated by some of the most lifelike fantasy creatures ever created. There is a wondrous quality to the faun and his netherworld neighbors, who resemble figures from Arthur Rackham's storybook illustrations.

The cast members refuse to let their make-believe co-stars steal the spotlight. Ivana Baquero is unnervingly convincing as a child caught in a traumatic situation. Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mama Tambien) is affecting as Mercedes, the housekeeper who watches over Ofelia. Sergi Lopez, who has portrayed unforgettable villains in With a Friend Like Harry and Dirty Pretty Things, is rather one-dimensionally wicked here; but as he represents the hard-heartedness of a brutal regime, he's not meant to be a complicated character.

Director Guillermo Del Toro

Del Toro directs this tale with the confidence of a master storyteller. Pan's Labyrinth further develops a unique blend of fantasy and history that he introduced in his extraordinary 2001 film, The Devil's Backbone. It succeeds because of Del Toro's uncompromising dedication to his vision. When financiers lost their courage and bailed, Del Toro gave up his salary in order to finish it. As a result, he's given us one of the best fantasy films ever made.

But Pan's Labyrinth is more than just a fantasy. It's an important film about the power of childlike faith to guide us through a darkening world.

Thus, it's disappointing that Del Toro's film writes off the church with one broad stroke, casting the Christian clergyman as hand-in-hand with the devil. It's true that many evils have been committed in the name of Christ, and the Spanish Civil War raises questions about the relationship of the Catholic church and a fascist regime.

In an article in Sight and Sound, Del Toro said that the Pale Man, a devil who has a face without eyes, represents the evil committed by "faceless institutions" like the church. (He also describes himself as a "lapsed Catholic," and tells us that he turned down an offer to direct The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because he "wasn't interested in the lion resurrecting.") But it seems rather extreme to equate Christians and Nazis. And it's a shame that Del Toro can't make a distinction between the message of Christ and the distortion of that message by corrupt and misguided churchmen.

Doug Jones as the Pale Man

Still, whether he knows it or not, Del Toro has given us a story resonant with echoes of Christianity. Consider the fairy tale about the rose of redemption, which was abandoned by those who feared the rose's thorns. Consider the suggestion that those who become too focused on their own suffering will forget their true heritage and home. Consider the reminder that innocent blood has been shed for the salvation of the world.

This film would probably have delighted Tolkien and Lewis, who believed that fairy tales—even dark and troubling myths like this one—serve to help us explore spiritual mysteries and apprehend the reality of grace as it glimmers through a glass, or in this case a screen, darkly. Pan's Labyrinth is a parable so profound it's like the gospel masquerading in a mysterious disguise.

Pan's Labyrinth

Rated R
(for graphic violence and some language)

Genre:Fantasy, History

Theater release:
December 29, 2006
by Picturehouse

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Runtime: 119 minutes

Ariadna Gil (Carmen); Sergi López (Vidal); Ivana Baquero (Ofelia); Doug Jones (The Faun); Maribel Verdú (Mercedes); Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo)

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