Monday, September 11, 2006


(Special Presentations)
(Mexico/Spain/USA, 2006, 112 minutes)
Written by: Guillermo del Toro
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Alex Angulo, Doug Jones

Hyperbole abounds for Guillermo del Toro’s beguiling, profound, and utterly original “Pan’s Labyrinth”, which has already been primed for “Next Big Thing” status and will be released at year’s end adorned in the kind of critical hosannas normally reserved for your more standard Oscar-bait. I wish there was another word for “masterpiece” that carried as much cache—in a time when “masterwork” and “classic” labels are slapped on everything from a Matthew Perry dramedy to a new “Golden Girls” DVD collection, the term has come to mean precious little.

The obvious question is: is it really that good? I wish my keystrokes could type out an emphatic “absolutamente!” with the profanity-laden basso profundo bellow of its director. I can’t say I was surprised by its quality—I’ve been a long-time fan of this ever-evolving filmmaker since I first caught his debut “Cronos” in the Uptown 3 cinema back in 1993, when he spent a good hour after the screening waxing rhapsodically on the art of horror films (to a non-Midnight Madness crowd) and showing his sketchbook to anyone within earshot (An extention on my annoying autobiographical pause: I was one of several storyboard artists on “Mimic”, but while my association with the director was brief—I was thrilled to be part of his sophomore effort, which is in radical need of re-evaluation).

Wisely revisiting the conceit that made his last Spanish-language allegory “The Devil’s Backbone” a transcendent, one-of-a-kind experience, del Toro sets the tone with “once upon a time” before ripping off the gossamer wings to plummet us into man-made horrors to which any otherworldly threat pales. Opening narration tells us of a princess who fled to the human world from her underground kingdom, where she eventually met her death, and of her grieving father, who forever awaits the return of her soul.

We then move to a remote farmhouse in northern Spain in the year 1944, just after the Spanish Civil War. 12 year old Ofelia (Baquero, whose expressiveness belies the need for dialogue) arrives with her widowed and pregnant mother Carmen (Gil) to meet her new stepfather, Vidal (López, whose soulless demeanor practically alters the temperature of the theatre), a sadistic captain in Franco’s fascist Nationalist army, who regards his bride as nothing more than a vessel to bear him a son. Her new home is also a strategic base from which Vidal can weed out the remaining leftist insurgents by controlling the distribution of food and medical supplies to the surrounding villages. Refusing her mother’s wish that she address Vidal as "father," Ofelia avoids the adults, save for defiant housekeeper Mercedes (Verdu) and the kindly “Doctor” (Angulo), and immerses herself in fairy tales.

One night, a tiny fairy right out of one of her books lures Ofelia to the overgrown, stone labyrinth nearby, where she meets a horned, humanoid faun (Doug “Abe Sapien” Jones, this generation’s Kevin Peter Hall) who tells her that she’s the reincarnation of Princess Moanna, daughter of the Moon. But to become immortal, she must complete three tasks. As Ofelia sneaks away to complete each deadly challenge, beginning with the retrieval of a key from the stomach of a giant frog, then the theft of a dagger from the eyeless, cannibalistic Pale Man (Jones again), her mother’s condition worsens and the guerilla uprising—which Mercedes and the Doctor have been aiding from within--escalates into violent clashes that could obliterate both worlds…

I’ve never much cared for the term “magical realism”—it always smacked of those “Classical Music For People Who Don’t Like Classical Music” LPs, or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (or the au current “graphic novel”, which never fails to make me wince)—people resistant to genre fiction need to learn that fantasy isn’t always peurile by definition, and changing the label doesn’t mean a damn thing about its content. The film will likely be sold on the strength of its creature-feature imagery and del Toro’s past hits (the advance posters are already trumpeting “From the director of ‘Hellboy’”), but those expecting a Hensonesque pop-fable will be surprised (some delighted, others disappointed, depending on what baggage they bring) that most of the story unfolds in the “real world” of post-war Spain and a bleak struggle against oppression, so perhaps here the label is appropriate.

The violence is harsher above ground, with unflinching depictions of animal slaughter, prisoner torture (Gasper Noe will be shocked to discover that his face-smashing scene from “Irreversible” has been outdone), and child endangerment. The nuances of detail and emotional malaise betray the fact that del Toro wasn’t born until nearly two decades after these events took place. It’s a credit to his integrity as an artist that he’s a well-versed in his heritage as he is in the minutia of geek-chic.

While the film is chock full o’ monsters and CG environments, Del Toro’s presentation of surrealism is uniquely matter-of-fact—owing more to the perverse playfulness of his idol Luis Bunuel than the academics of Bruno Bettelheim--and his allegory deliberately elusive and a complete 180 from the Rod Serling show bible--not every fantasy image has a singular, symbolic meaning. Instead, he’s more interested in crafting parallel worlds shuttered by cruelty and fatalism but from which wonder can still leak through, human, inhuman, or otherwise. It’s to his maturity and confidence as a filmmaker that so far this film has bewitched, terrified, and saddened even those with little knowledge of the historical period and for whom the supernatural is ordinarily a confection.

That being said, he’s not immune to jollily concocting “cool” images (as in “way“, “super“, “ain’t it”--what have you) for their own sake. His inky compositions show the influence of comic icons Berni Wrightson, Kelly Jones, and Alex Nino, and I had incorrectly assumed “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola was involved in the monster designs, given his San Diego Comic Con promo poster (and the misshapen elegence and simple but expressive facial detail in the costumes themselves). But del Toro has said in interviews that these magnificent elementals were primarily influenced by the work of Victorian illustrator Arthur Rackham, whose work has adorned classics by Lewis Carroll and William Shakespeare. There is something endearingly “old fashioned” about this otherwise graphic and state-of-the-art film in that it looks back to a time when fairy tales were steeped in violence and terror and children’s entertainment wasn’t awash in safe, fake whimsy and easy homilies. Still, I’d expect several hours spanning several discs on how the fawn’s tattoos were created on the inevitable special edition DVD.

Working with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro for the fourth time (they began their association on “Cronos”, but “Mimic” and “Blade 2” were shot by others), del Toro’s visions are once again burnished in warm chiaroscuro hues that renders even the most macabre vision inviting (even if Ofelia does accept the faun’s challenges a little too readily, could we blame her?).

“The world isn't like your fairy tales--the world is a cruel place”, scolds a housekeeper to Ofelia, but the surface realm of adulthood is so traumatic that even her inner, childish fantasies have become polluted. Ofelia’s fears of child-eating demons and dark forests are no more shallow than the simplistic “us-or-them” manifestos from which the so-called “adults” wage war. The director’s take on fairy stories is a complex one, alternately celebratory and damning. The adults have clearly lost what Ofelia thrives on, yet her imaginative flights (such as they are regarded) do nothing to lessen the inevitability of her miserable reality—no one learns a Valuable Lesson and “happily ever after” is demented poppycock. Call it the “Uses And Abuses Of Enchantment”.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006