Published at: Sept. 23, 2006, 7:16 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here. I think I may be the only member of the AICN family that does not have a relationship with Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. I’ve never met the man (although that may change before year’s end), never spoken to him. Hell, I barely know what the guy looks like. But that has never stopped me from adoring nearly everything the man has created.
I became borderline obsessed with him after seeing Cronos and Mimic. There was a gooey, rustic quality to his films that that made you want to deny your eyes the ability to blink for fear of missing some rich aspect to his visuals. While he went on to direct the more straight-forward, mainstream comic book films Blade II (which I love and is the only one of the series I own) and Hellboy (which I appreciate with due respect but was never able to recommend to people), my absolute, hands-down favorite Del Toro film Del Toro is 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone. This stunningly effectively work braids the ghost story genre with a dark period in Spanish history, and the results are devastating, darkly beautiful, and absolutely terrifying.
With his latest, Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro returns to life in Spain just a few years after the timeframe of The Devil’s Backbone in the early years after Franco’s victory. The first thing you must understand about this film is that Del Toro cares as much about the historical drama of fascist military men and the rebels who defied and fought them as he does about the fantastical horror elements. The reasons for the film’s R rating have to do more with the violence carried out in the very real world, and not the grotesque creatures that inhabit the world of the young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who is forced to move with her pregnant, ill, and recently remarried mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her new husband, the brutal Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez of With A Friend Like Harry).
Del Toro always leaves the option available that most of the other-worldly creatures and places Ofelia sees and visits are strictly figments of her wild and troubled imagination. She is absolutely miserable living under what is essentially military rule with a man who cares nothing for her or her mother, and only about the unborn child (which he assumes--demands--is a son). The only part of the grounds where they live that interests her is an elaborate, rundown labyrinth.
One night while she is sleeping, an insect-like creature visits her, turns into a creepy looking fairy, and leads her into the maze of bushes and trees. Deep in the labyrinth, she means a faun named Pan (Doug Jones, Hellboy’s Abe Sapien), a gigantic half man-half buck creature with ornamental horns and coverings that appear to be made of trees, dirt, and all things of nature. He tells Ofelia that she is the reincarnation of a long-dead Princess, but to prove this to him she must engage in three dangerous tasks. Ofelia is so intent on not simply being a part of what’s going on in her new home, she gladly accepts her new identity and the tasks with little question.
But Ofelia has more to deal with than just these tasks. She discovers that her stepfather’s head servant, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu from Y Tu Mama Tambien), is actually the sister of the leader of the rebellion, and she has been stealing supplies from the Captain’s household to fortify the rebels. Also teaming with her is the Captain’s personal physician (Alex Angulo), who sneaks Mercedes medical supplies whenever possible. Ofelia hates the Captain so much, there is never any danger of her turning in these two conspirators, but the added tension fuels her adventures to become a princess.
Some may find Del Toro’s emphasis on the more conventional portions of his story to be aggravating, since he’s not spending every precious moment with hideous creatures scaring the little girl, but that’s not what he has ever been about. Even in his comic book films, he always took the time to let the camera linger and the pace to slow down just enough to make the action that much more intense and explosive.
Having said that, when he does enter the alternate universe of Pan’s making, he creates visions that are deeply frightening, visually awe-inspiring, and imaginative beyond belief. I will never forget the image of an Ofelia coming face to face with an enormous toad with an equally enormous (and sticky) tongue. The Pale Man (also played by Jones) at the banquet table sequence will in all likelihood give you nightmares. By setting the monstrous in the real-world, Del Toro shows us what it is he does best. While he is regarded as a great director of horror and fantasy, what he is never given enough credit for are his abilities as a master storyteller and writer.
But the writer-director’s subtext about the places children’s imaginations take them when fear and anxiety dominate their world is what makes Pan’s Labyrinth so powerful. And the lovely Ivana Baquero absolutely owns every scene she’s in. There is absolutely no hint of her playing to the camera or falling into any of the trappings that so many young actors do. I was also impressed with Lopez as the Captain. You can see him trying to be accepting of his new family, but his life is so totally dominated by killing and aggression that his emotions tend to carry over into his personal life. He is most definitely the villain of this peace, but he’s not without his qualities.
Pan’s Labyrinth is both sensitive and shocking, as all the great fairy tales are; and let’s face it, that’s what this film is. There are few characters whose lives Del Toro believes are precious enough to have to survive until the end, and that’s all I’m saying about that. More than a collection of memorable visuals and far more than a simple historical drama, Pan’s Labyrinth transcends the genres it wholly embraces by giving us some of the most undeniably gruesome, startling, and sometimes magical images in recent memory. It’s a film I’m desperate to see again with a less anticipatory mind and just enjoy the beauty and terror of this remarkable film.