Movie Review – Pan's Labyrinth

Thursday, March 1, 2007

  • If the Pale Man doesn't haunt your dreams for years to come, you probably blew out some brain node in your last night of drinkin

    If the Pale Man doesn't haunt your dreams for years to come, you probably blew out some brain node in your last night of drinkin

Written by Gonzalo Moreno

Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944 post-Civil War Spain, and it opens with a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) being driven to an old mill in an isolated rural area. The mill is the base of operations for Ofelia’s new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a cruel fascist officer trying to eradicate the last vestiges of communist resistance in the area. The mill is also home to Vidal’s housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and the wavering Doctor Ferreira (Álex Angulo), both of whom are in the captain’s employ while also having a very apparent relationship with the resistance.

Ofelia, a 13-year old whose head is often in the clouds of her favourite fairy tales, discovers an old stone labyrinth near the mill, and she decides to go exploring one night. There she meets a faun who reveals Ofelia is the reincarnation of a fairy princess who strayed far from her home long ago, and proceeds to set a series of trials that Ofelia must overcome if she wishes to return to her ancestral home.

The rest of the film is a game of parallelisms, mainly between Ofelia’s quests, which take her into the realm of the fantastical, and Vidal’s very real military operations in the mountains surrounding the mill. The movie also pushes a number of secondary storylines, such as Vidal’s obsession with lineage (so much so that we never learn his first name), Ferreira’s and Mercedes’ role within the resistance, or Carmen’s feelings as she is about to have her baby. One of the beauties of Pan’s Labyrinth is how each and every storyline, no matter how minor it might have seemed, conveys in its excellent climactic ending.

Pan’s Labyrinth immediate attractive is the unparalleled visual imagination of its director and scriptwriter. Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, whose credits include comic-book adaptation blockbusters (Blade 2, Hellboy), B-movies (Mimic) and two Spanish-language cult favourites (Chronos and The Devil’s Backbone), finally comes of age in this movie. Whereas previous Del Toro flicks have been a barrage of baroque sets and stunning visuals, Pan’s Labyrinth provides a stark contrast between the sparse setting of rural post-civil war Spain and the eerie world of Ofelia’s quests. Thanks to this contrast, when the fantastic enters the movie, it does so in full force. This is specially obvious with the incredibly well-acted faun and the terrifyingly mesmerizing Pale Man (aka the dude with his eyes in his palms), both of which are brilliantly played by actor Doug Jones in very real, non-CGI suits and makeup (Del Toro likes his special effects old-school).

The movie manages to pull this contrast off via the always solid and sometimes brilliant work of its actors, which simultaneously pushes Del Toro into a new level of filmmaking. The cast is almost exclusively comprised of Spanish actors, with the exception of Jones, whose lines were voiced over in post-production. López was a shoo-in for the role of Vidal, as he has earned multiple Spanish, French and European Academy awards and nominations playing tortured souls and psychopaths, and his portrayal of the brutal fascist commander is nearly perfect. Gil, one of the most talented actresses of her generation, is also brilliant in her role as the calmly desperate Carmen.

The rest of the cast involved much more risk for Del Toro. Baquero, an absolutely unknown actress, delivers a performance as surprisingly mature and collected as can be delivered by any child actor these days. What was especially surprising was the astounding work that Verdú did with the role of Mercedes. A decade ago, Verdú was eye candy in sitcoms and irrelevant comedies in Spain. Since working with Del Toro’s compatriot and friend Alfonso Cuarón in the critically-acclaimed Y tu mamá también six years ago, she seems to be finding new depths to her skills.

A warning that must be issued is that the movie is sometimes graphically brutal. Vidal is a pathologically violent man, much suited to the violent times he lived in. Del Toro hides none of this violence; in fact, he highlights it to compare it with Ophelia’s apparently more terrifying yet comparatively harmless dream world. Towards the end of the movie, after the penultimate Vidal-related mishap involving sharp objects, the whole theatre could be heard to cringe and moan in empathetic pain. Despite the fact that Pan’s Labyrinth showcases children, fairies and mythological beings, this is not a movie that anyone under the age of 16 should watch.

By the time the end credits of Pan’s Labyrinth start to roll, it is difficult to not be in awe of Del Toro’s work. A movie that brings out the real in the fantastic and the fantastic in the real, Pan’s Labyrinth goes down, Academy Awards notwithstanding, as one of the best movies of the year.

Editor's Note: Gonzalo's from Spain, so this is even higher praise than the usual. Pan's Labyrinth is still playing at the Bookshelf.-AAD

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