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PAN’S LABYRINTH (****)
Movie Review by: Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed & Written by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring:
Ivana Baquero, Ivana Baquero, Sergí Lopez
Running time: 120 minutes, Released: 12/29/06.
Rated R f
or graphic violence and some language.
Brilliant from first frame to last, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a fancifully aesthetic, densely rich fairy tale for adults, represents the full blossoming of Mexican Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker of the first rank. It’s easily the most visionary, haunting, and expressive film I’ve seen this year. A mid-career summation work, “Pan’s Labyrinth” raises the bar considerably for del Toro (what will he do next?) as well as for the fantasy-fable genre. Before analyzing the film, I’d like to say that “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a fantastical work, in both senses of this term, and one of the best films of the year.

Set against the backdrop of the fascist regime in 1944 rural Spain, “Pan’s Labyrinth” centers on Ofelia, a lonely, dreamy child living with her mother and adoptive father, a military officer. As such, “Pan’s Labyrinth” serves as a logical companion piece to del Toro’s period fable, “The Devil’s Backbone,” upon which it impressively expands in narrative, mythic, and visual ways.

In her loneliness, Ofelia creates a world filled with fantastical creatures and secret destinies. With post-war repression at its height, Ofelia must come to terms with the surrounding world through a fable of her own creation.

In del Toro’s films, there is no clear demarcation between reality and fantasy, since the former tends to be sensualist and surreal, and the latter both realistic and gaudy. “Pan’s Labyrinth” blends a number of seemingly contradictory concepts to an advantage. The film is a genre and a personal-auteurist statement. It’s both gothic horror and fantasy. It’s historically specific and politically grounded but also universal in its cinematic and mythic properties.

The film is set in a medieval compound in a primeval forest, the most prevalent of fairytales' settings, and though it’s 1944, the narrative and landscape are slightly anachronistic, lending a touch of mythic otherworldliness. Genre-wise, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is more a fable-fantasy than a horror yarn driven by revenge. It is an allegory, though it’s possible to enjoy it as a purely visceral experience.

When the tale begins, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives with her sick, pregnant mother to meet her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergí Lopez), who serves in the Franco administration. Vidal lives in a spot secluded in the Spanish countryside, where rebel soldiers still roam around. Vidal is the biological father of the baby, which he declares must be and would be a son that needs to be born close to him.

Ominous signs of a foreboding future are evident from the first handshake. When Ofelia offers Vidal the “wrong” hand, he reacts violently, almost breaking her arm with his firm grip. Drawing on our familiarity with such family settings, del Toro doesn’t elaborate on the tangled relationships between Ofelia, her good mother, and her nasty stepfather. Taking a walk into a labyrinth next to her house, Ofelia and slips into a world of fantasy. The split between the story's disparate realms is sharp. The new realm accentuates the disparity from Ofelia's “real” world, which is defined by insensitivity and cruel violence. To del Toro’s credit, both world are meticulously crafted and sumptuously imagined to the point where there is no need to elaborate on the tensions between them.

Ofelia discovers an ancient pagan idol and a fairy that leads her to a maze standing behind the building, a labyrinth predates Christianity. A satyr tells Ofelia that she’s the lost princess of the fairy realm, assigning her three tasks to accomplish before she can return home. Ofelia must get an item at the dangerous banquet but must not eat the food, and the giant toad has to be fed a magic stone. All tasks have to be executed by the full moon, which may signal Ofelia’s first menstruation.

Del Toro effectively conveys the callous violence of Vidal's political dominion. The war between Vidal and the rebels takes place in a cold, mechanical setting. The woods surrounding the outpost are filled with rebels who have moles inside Vidal’s unit. Captain Vidal underestimates the rebels’ strength—a conscious allusion to Bush’s and the War in Iraq? The rebels harass the outpost and raid its supplies; Vidal strikes back with brutality, even when it's clear that those captured aren’t members of the rebels.

Vidal’s world has its own rigid logic, a product of fascist ideology rather than dreams. Utterly committed, Vidal believes that his cause justifies any means; he’s a victim of blind obedience to a horrible ideology. Vidal executes torture sessions with cruel brutality, beating a man with a wine bottle. The cut Vidal gets on his face gives him a sinister smile that turns him into a ghoulish-looking monster.

Ofelia believes in the world of fairies and in what the satyr tells her, despite his creepy look; he has hooves for feet and horns on his head. Unlike Vidal, however, Ofelia is not blindly committed to the satyr, which proves to be her redemption and salvation.
While the fate of her mother and stepfather are preordained, Ofelia’s is not; she’s the only character with a free will to make choices. As a young girl, Ofelia is hung between childhood and adolescence; she’s told she’s too old for fairy tales, yet she still finds them alluring.

The theme of duality recurs throughout the movie. The center of the labyrinth shifts from magical to non-magical elements; the rebel moles have double identities; and Vidal’s few honest moments all occur when he faces the looking-glass, a mirror.

Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in “Hellboy”) plays a dual role, as the satyr and as Pan, a horrible monster whose eyes are in his palms and legs are atrocities. In his speech, Pan relies heavily on the “vosotros” form, a classic touch that evokes a bygone tradition. Pan’s world includes strange, playful fairies, and a grotesque giant toad. The film's fantasy sequences are seductive spectacles of spiritual and cultural nuance.

The film's creatures seem to have come from the dark spots of del Toro’s subconscious imagination. The fantasy worlds that Ofelia visits--the huge interior of a tree, or a castle with a dining room set for a dangerous banquet--are not too removed from the reality of the outpost.

You couldn’t tell from del Toro’s American movies (“Blade II,” “Hellboy”), but you could infer from his Mexican ones (“Cronos”) that he is not just a great visual artist but also a consummate storyteller. Intellectually and emotionally, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is del Toro’s most resonant film to date. The film exudes a chilly vision that nonetheless masks a warm spiritual center.

A film of breathtaking visual splendor, “Pan’s Labyrinth” should be experienced as viscerally as possible—on a big screen, in the dark, collectively. Watching “Pan’s Labyrinth” reaffirms our sense in the possibilities of film as a medium, the wonder of a darkly beautiful fantasy that’s vividly realized.

The movie offers the excitement of watching a filmmaker, who rightfully assumes his place alongside other masters of world cinema. The bar has been raised not just for del Toro, but also for other directors (Peter Jackson and Tim Burton included) working in the fantasy genre. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a unique work, one with strong allusions to literature, painting, film, and music. Guillermo del Toro has made his masterpiece.
 

PAN’S LABYRINTH © 2006 Picturehouse
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2006 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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