Saturday, March 21, 2020

"Pan's Labyrinth": review

If you took out the goriest scenes from "Pan's Labyrinth" ("El laberinto del fauno" in Spanish), you'd be left with an enchanting and sad tale for children. But the gore in this movie is part of its horror aspect, and the horror is essential to the story, so removing it is out of the question. Intertwined in this narrative, like a double helix, are the twin strands of brutal realism and the equally brutal pagan mythos.

Written, produced, and directed by the talented Guillermo del Toro, "Pan's Labyrinth" is the story of ten-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who is traveling with her sickly and pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to be with her stepfather, the cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a Falangist officer of the Franco regime in Spain. It is the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and the Falangists are still fighting the republican guerrillas. Captain Vidal has taken up residence at a large estate in the middle of a forest, and this is most definitely a war zone. Several of the household's servants and helpers are secretly rebels, including a friendly doctor named Ferreiro (Álex Angulo) and a housekeeper named Mercedes (Maribel Verdú).

The story opens with a bit of fantasy: there is a legend that the king of the underworld had a precious daughter, the princess Moanna, who left her eldritch kingdom and came to the surface world—our world—where she was blinded by the powerful light of our sun and deprived of her memories. Along with her memories of who she was went Moanna's special powers and her immortality, and so it was that, now mortal, the princess lived the rest of her life away from her father. But her father was convinced that Moanna would return, reborn, to the underworld, and this is where Ofelia's story merges with that of the eldritch kingdom.

Unhappy to be in her new home, Ofelia and her stepfather are tense and wary of each other. Ofelia is also distressed by her mother's sickness, but Mercedes the housekeeper does what she can to care for Ofelia, almost as if the girl were her own daughter. Ofelia, meanwhile, follows a faerie/insect into a nearby ancient labyrinth. There, she meets a tall, imposing faun (think: satyr) who addresses her as "Your Highness" and tells her she must complete three tasks before the full moon. The tasks are written in a magical book that the faun (Doug Jones) gives the girl, and the object of the mission is to restore Princess Moanna to her rightful place in the kingdom of the underworld. The faun sees Ofelia as Moanna reborn.

And so it is that "Pan's Labyrinth" moves smoothly between the earthly, horrific story of life just after the Spanish Civil War and the magical, unearthly story of Ofelia/Moanna's attempts to complete her three tasks. Ofelia's adventures will take her through magical portals; she will encounter various creatures ranging from charming to disgusting to horrifying; she will fail, at times, but find ways to soldier onward. In our normal world, Ofelia will do what she can to help ease her weakening mother's suffering, occasionally pressing her head against her mother's belly to whisper comfort, advice, and solemn requests to her as-yet-unborn little brother. Captain Vidal, meanwhile, will torture, maim, and kill people, all in the name of war. As for the secret rebels employed by the Falangists... the net will close ever more tightly around them until escape becomes impossible.

I have no desire to spoil the ending of this lovely film; the most I can say is that the ending ought not to be surprising once you accept the fact that this film is, among other things, about the undeniable horrors of war. The story moves at a stately pace—not too slowly, but not in the manner of your typical horror film, either: this is, after all, a film that mixes genres, folding in elements of fantasy, drama, and even some action. The transitions and interactions between the terrestrial world and the magical one are carried out with narrative smoothness and care, and while the viewer might, by the end of the movie, wonder whether any of the fantasy elements were real, there are, in fact, bits of evidence that, even in the hell that was 1940s Spain, our crass material reality overlays a much deeper, older, subtler reality.

I have yet to see "The Devil's Backbone," the film that put del Toro on the map. Del Toro calls that movie the spiritual predecessor to "Pan's Labyrinth"—or rather, "Pan's Labyrinth" is the spiritual sequel to "The Devil's Backbone"—so part of me thinks I should have seen that one, too, and then written a two-fer review. For the moment, though, I have only "Labyrinth" to go on, so that will have to suffice. I have, however, seen some of del Toro's other movies—enough to know that the man's head is alive with a parallel fantasy universe that routinely informs his cinematic work. If you were to watch "Pan's Labyrinth" and then watch both of del Toro's Hellboy movies, you would see right away how deeply this alternate universe influences him. This is clearly a case of an artist who doesn't so much create as act as a conduit through which another power pours out into our world. And our world is better for it.

The lighting, set design, and cinematography for this movie are all impressive and evocative, as is the musical score. The creature effects are a combination of practical and CGI, and despite this being a movie from 2006, the effects have aged fairly well. The gore is fairly intense: Captain Vidal brutally murders one peasant with a wine bottle; he later stitches his own face back together after it has been slashed. That moment of self-surgery might be my only complaint about the film: the wound itself is almost completely bloodless while Vidal is stitching his cheek closed, but it suddenly bleeds profusely the moment he takes an agonizing swig from a bottle of alcohol. Also, the shape of the wound, which goes from the corner of Vidal's mouth to about two-thirds of the way across his cheek, made me mutter to myself, "You wanna know how I got these scars?" Aside from that, the movie is a technical marvel.

Above and beyond the technical, though, was the movie's dramatic aspect, and all of the stars were excellent in their roles. Ivana Baquero made for a winsome and sympathetic Ofelia/Moanna, and Sergi López was evil incarnate in the role of Captain Vidal. I should also note the performance of Doug Jones, whom del Toro tends to use in most of his films (Jones played Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, and he was the Amphibian Man in "The Shape of Water"): here, Jones played both the faun (who, according to del Toro, was merely a faun and not specifically the god Pan, hence the film's Spanish-language title) and a horrifying, child-eating creature called The Pale Man, with eyes in the palms of his hands. In both mythical roles, he was obviously in his element.

You'll have to watch the movie and decide for yourself whether Ofelia really is Princess Moanna, and whether the world of faeries, fauns, and pale men actually exists. What I find fascinating is that, even though the movie smoothly and gracefully interweaves its fantastical and real-world scenes, the story's parallel plot lines remain distinct—so distinct that there's never a question about which world we're in as we witness events unfold. So for this film, the question isn't so much "What is real?" as it is "Which world is more real?" As with the novel Life of Pi, which poses a similar question and offers a similar choice, you may find your heart tending toward one answer while your head tends toward another.

[Interesting trivia: according to Wikipedia, Guillermo del Toro wrote the English subtitles for the film himself. He was unhappy with the subtitling of "The Devil's Backbone."]

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