Saturday, October 17, 2015

Pan's Labyrinth

Proof there is always another chance, I missed the chance to see Pan's Labyrinth (2006) during its initial theatrical run, but the following year, a local theatre near my college showed it as part of a film course, so I did get to see it on the big screen. By that point, I had already seen the movie on DVD and knew what to expect; my fellow students, knowing only it was a Spanish-language fantasy movie about a little girl and fairies, never knew what hit them.

Very much a modern cinematic fairy tale, Pan's Labyrinth is not, I repeat not, a children's movie. Between the eyeless monster that eats babies, the fairies that get their heads bitten off, and the looming faun that looks like he belongs on a Dimmu Borgir album cover, this is a dark, intense fairy tale. The film is also arguably not a fantasy movie; all these wonderful and frightening creatures we witness could very well be just the products of the imagination of a little girl desperate to escape the real life horrors of war surrounding her.

Set in 1944 in Spain, Pan's Labyrinth begins as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) journeys with her mother Carmen (Ariada Gil) to the military outpost of her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Carmen is pregnant and nearly full term, but Vidal insists his son be born where his father is. Ofelia has a large collection of books about fairy tales, and shortly after arriving in the woods, she meets the faun (Doug Jones), who tells her she is the reincarnation of a princess from an underground kingdom who escaped long ago, Now, he gives her a series of tasks to prove her royal legacy.

Director Guillermo del Toro's style has often been compared to magical realism, the inclusion of magic and other fantasy elements in otherwise real-world settings. Pan's Labyrinth falls into this category by incorporating real-world elements - the Spanish Civil War, fascist army officers, underground guerillas, doctors using modern medicine, etc. - and mixing in the fantasy - the faun, the fairies, magical spells involving mandrakes, chalk that can draw doors to other realms. Ofelia never questions any of these fantastical elements; she takes them in stride, curious to learn more and to see them but never doubting their existence or demanding a rational explanation for them.

Of course, it could all be in her head. She reads a lot of books that give her ideas, her mother is ill, and she's lonely out in the wilderness as a war rages around her. Why wouldn't she imagine something wondrous lurking in the shadows or living in the woods? No one else sees what she claims to see, dismissing her claims of fairies and whatnot as those of an easily excitable, bookish girl. del Toro avoids answering definitively for much of the movie, although how Ofeila gets out of her room during the climax is not easily explained if it's all in her head.

del Toro does not neglect the real world around Ofelia. While she encounters a terrifying pale being, Ofelia's biggest threat is her stepfather, whom she refuses to call father. Vidal is a sadistic monster who demands total obedience, and he relishes torturing prisoners. His cruelest moment, arguably, is when he tells a stuttering guerrilla if he can count to three without misspeaking, he'll let him go, and naturally, the prisoner fails. What he does to him is kept off screen, but we see the ugly results. One of the first thing we see Vidal do in the movie is beat a man to death with a wine bottle until his face caves in.

Meanwhile, the guerrillas move closer, aided by Carmen's doctor, Ferreiro (Alex Angulo), a good man who doesn't think they have a chance but does what he can, and servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who befriends Ofelia and whose brother leads the partisans. They live in constant fear of being discovered. This material isn't just background filler; it's fully fleshed out. In fact, there are probably more scenes in the real world than the fantasy world.

When I say Pan's Labyrinth is gloomy, I mean that a compliment. It's dark, both in subject matter and look. Ofelia's encounters with the faun occur at night, and he emerges, lumbering from the shadows, and many scenes seem lit only by fireplace. It rains quite a bit, including during a hillside skirmish, and at one point, Ofelia crawls though a muddy tunnel covered in bugs as she confronts a giant toad. The creature designs are not cute or clean but more adult; the faun in particular looks like he's part tree and part goat demon. We can never be particularly sure of his agenda.

Yet, despite the dark nature of the film and the real-world violence it portrays, it's not a depressing experience. It is, as is often said about fantasy films, enchanting and wondrous. Ofelia proves herself to be a worthy heroine, learning life lessons along the way and taking on both real and fantasy monsters and succeeding with her mettle, determination, and quick thinking. The end of the film is bittersweet, but seeing Ofelia join the fairy tales she has long found solace in is uplifting. That is, if you believe she really encountered all of that.

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