January 20, 2007

Review of Pan's labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro is best well-known in the US as the screenwriter and director of Hellboy, but in the right circles he is much more renowned for The devil's backbone and Cronos. If you're not familiar with either of these, I recommend hunting down some copies before seeing Pan's labyrinth.

Del Toro has called Pan's labyrinth a `sequal in spirit' to The devil's backbone, and the two films share a number of thematic elements. Both take place in Spain towards the end of the Civil War, and have, as protagonist, children of about ten years old whose lives have been severely disrupted by that war. Both live solidly within the Spanish literary genre of magical realism, with two distinct but parallel and sympathetic plotlines. Indeed, it is magical realism that makes these two films so distinctive, and makes Pan's labyrinth so artistically successful.

===== Very, very small spoilers below the fold =====

Briefly, Pan's labyrinth tells the story of Ofelia, a Spanish girl whose father has been killed in the Spanish Civil War. The war is ending, and her mother has become pregnant by a captain in Franco's army. At the beginning of the film, Ofelia and her mother are brought out from the city to an old mill, which is being used as a base for the rebel-clearing mission of the captain. Ofelia discovers an rotting stone labyrinth just inside the forest, and an ancient faun (played by the incredibly talented Doug Jones), the mime who played Abe Sapien in Hellboy and the lead Gentleman in the Buffy episode `Hush') in the centre tells her that she is the reincarnated daughter of the king of the Underworld. To return to the Underworld (`where there is no suffering or death'), she must complete three tasks, with the help of the faun's pet faeries and a magical book.

Meanwhile, the Civil War rages on in the microcosm of the mill household. Giving a more adequate summary of the realist plotline without major spoilers is difficult, so I will just say that it is a mistake, as many of the reviewers on IMDb (both positive and negative) do, to focus more or less exclusively on the supernatural plotline. Magical realism is built on the way the realist and supernatural are used to comment on each other, and you will not be able to understand the film without grasping that basic premise. I will, say, however, that the realist plotline is fairly standard: the captain is almost a two-dimensional villain (as befits a fairy tale), sadistic and misogynist and obsessed with his patrimony; there are Republican sympathisers right under his nose; Ofelia's mother's pregnancy takes a turn for the worst; the main characters are slowly but inevitably isolated; and so on.

===== Spoilers end =====

Del Toro's greatest skill as a storyteller (and he has several; his visual aesthetic, for one, is absolutely breathtaking) lies in his subtle and sophisticated use of allusion, reference, and reflection, and he makes full use of the complex structure of magical realism to this end. Too often `updated' or `modernised' fairy tales collapse under their own weight, and turn into either disappointing action movies (Terry Gilliam's Brother's Grimm) or cheesy and painfully insipid pieces of crap (anything M Night Shyamalan has ever touched). Pan's labyrinth avoids these pitfalls by focussing, not on the fantastic characters and settings, but on the basic iconic elements of fairy tales, in both the supernatural and realist plotlines: items of power, rules and warnings of danger, deception and trust, the powerless facing down the powerful. Don't misunderstand me, some of the most tour de force sequences of the film are encounters with fantastic characters in fantastic settings, but the realist side of the film means it cannot be built around these encounters, and thereby avoids going over the top.

For all its praise, Pan's labyrinth is not quite del Toro's masterpiece. All the characters are, ultimately, rather flat archetypes, and nothing that transpires is ever really all that surprising. It's far from formulaic, but I suspect the rave American reviews have more to do with the novelty of magical realism than any actual innovation on del Toro's part (besides putting magical realism on the screen; I can't think of another film, besides The devil's backbone, that's really done this). Pan's labyrinth is highly recommended, but I'm going to wait another five or ten years before I label del Toro a true genius; at only 42, he still needs some time to mature completely, especially as a writer.

One final note: While undoubtedly a fairy tale, Pan's labyrinth is not for young children. This is a dark and extremely disturbing tale, on the order of, say, something by David Cronenberg. (Though obviously very different in most other respects.) The somber atmosphere settles in from the first frame, and only becomes more and more oppressive -- I don't think there's a single moment where anyone says or does anything that's in any way amusing or light-hearted. It didn't give me nightmares, but I believe it would for anyone younger than about 14.

No comments: