Tuesday, May 6, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Movie Review #1: Pan's Labyrinth

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.  One of the things the creator of the site wanted to do was not just spotlight independent comics, but to also spotlight indy/art (put quotes around those words) films.  And, as the site was evolving - before it got sucked into the internet void - I tried to keep up with a couple of movie reviews.  Here's the one for Pan's Labyrinth, which was my introduction to Gullermo del Toro.  Enjoy.

PAN’S LABYRINTH by Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro’s latest film – PAN’S LABYRINTH – has been nominated for six Academy Awards including best original screenplay.  Familiar with his name, though not his work (no, I have not yet seen HELLBOY), I was intrigued by the critical acclaim accorded del Toro’s latest effort.  Weaving fantasy and reality around a young girl’s struggles during the Spanish Civil War, the concept had me hooked.

Set in Spain, 1944, PAN’S LABYRINTH was filmed in and around Madrid and is presented in Spanish with English subtitles.  The young girl, Ofelia, is traveling with her mother into a forested outpost where her new stepfather, an imperious Captain in the Spanish army, is awaiting them.  Captain Vidal wants them close despite continued attacks from resistance fighters because Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with the Captain’s child, and a father should be present when his son is born.  The first meeting between the Captain and the girl is a very telling one as Ofelia proffers her left hand to Vidal and he grabs it, squeezing tightly, and tells her “that is the wrong hand.”

That first night the girl is awakened by a diminutive sprite who leads her into the heart of the stone labyrinth that ominously rests just within the tree line behind the large cabin where the Captain, his men, and his family are staying.  Descending the spiral stairs found in the center, Ofelia is greeted by Pan – a tall, ancient faun – who tells her she is actually a princess of the underworld who must complete three tasks before the next full moon in order to regain her immortality.  The girl is dubious, but in accepting the odd, strangely hypnotic creature before her she also accepts the tale he relaters to her.  Gaining purpose in this world fraught with violence and evil, Ofelia sets about doing what the faun asks, while her mother deals with what is becoming a complicated pregnancy, so much so that the Captain’s doctor is required to remain at the cabin in order to safeguard the birth of the child.  As resistance attacks escalate, and the audience learns of spies within the Captain’s home, the perils and tension felt by all the characters becomes palpable – each of their lives spiraling out of their own control, leading to a climax that is both tragic and uplifting.

Guillermo del Toro richly deserves his nomination for best original screenplay.  The characters are all very authentic and the story progresses along smoothly utilizing the situations and atmosphere to create moments of pervading anxiety rather than cheap Hollywood clichés meant only to startle.  Like any well-told story this one moves toward an inevitable conclusion that many will not see coming; one that would never have been approved by the Hollywood factory.  And yet, to end the movie any other way would make no sense and leave the audience wanting.  Del Toro sets everything up smartly, all the little pieces of the puzzle subtly set into place and only revealed as a part of the whole as the end draws near.  Actions and decisions have consequences within the story as major characters die – a result of the paths they follow – and viewers realize nobody is safe from the violence surrounding these people.  Del Toro even allows us to experience a tiny sliver of pity for the Captain, despite his vicious despotic manner.  A feat not easily achieved.

Del Toro’s direction is also on display here as he teases out beautiful performances from his actors.  The emotions they feel are very real, their reactions all too human.  The audience is able to relate to these characters, even given the major obstacle resulting from an English-speaking audience watching a film in Spanish.  However, the language barrier is a non-issue, even disregarding the subtitles, and one can follow the story easily even if no translation were offered.  Del Toro must also be commended for not allowing the actors to overdo their performances, something that happens too often with fantasy films.  The fear.  The horror.  It all feels genuine even within the fantastic scenes del Toro creates, which allows this film to resonate more strongly with the audience than the latest “explodo” blockbuster.

Entering the theatre, I was expecting the fantasy element of the film to be the main focus and was impressed, and surprised, at how little film time it actually received.  Del Toro did not become enamored of this “other” world but utilized it adroitly in order to tell his story.  Grounding the film in the real world makes the horrors the audience experiences more frightful and also enhances the “otherness” of this fantasy world existing on the fringes of these characters’ lives.  And the visuals del Toro uses are breathtaking, especially considering what must have been a modest budget, and add immensely to the atmosphere of anxiety and unease that permeates this film.  PAN’S LABYRINTH is a great movie and a testament to the fact that it is the story – not the effects – that can make a lasting film.  

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