(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
A lot of us have experienced the following before, especially those who are friends with a lot of artists -- of having one of those friends be highly goofy most of the time, a lot of fun to be around, even more pleasant when you happen to be high, and who you think there's nothing really more to know about besides that. But then one day they put out a new project, or read a new poem at an open mic, or simply get on a certain tangent during a conversation, and you suddenly realize how many incredibly complex hidden layers there are to your goofy friend who can always make you laugh, and how at some of these levels they're able to come up with the most heartbreakingly beautiful and profound truths about the world you've ever heard. And then for the rest of your life you look at that goofy friend an entirely different way, knowing exactly what they're capable of at their full artistic capacity, having a newfound respect for the fact that they choose to be a fun-loving, 420-friendly, genre-loving pal instead. And you think, "Wow, there's a person who really has their stuff together. There's a person I really love hanging out with."
And I'll tell you, anyone who is even the tiniest bit familiar with the work of horror master Guillermo del Toro is going to be saying the exact same things by the time they're done with his latest, the Oscar-winning, career-defining 2006 Spanish fairytale Pan's Labyrinth; because it's the kind of breathtaking, glorious surprise that I'm talking about, a fine-art film from a guy mostly known for guilty stoner pleasures, that is so profound and moving that you can scarcely believe it comes from the creator of Hellboy and Blade II, that jolly rotund dude you see on the DVDs who's always smiling and cracking wise about the finer details of, for example, vampire snot. It is one of the most genuinely disturbing movies to come out in recent years, one that features not only a graphic representation of the horrors of fascism, but enough violence against children to give some people (especially parents) an apoplectic attack; but it's done for a very good reason, which is to get across del Toro's point, which is that real violence and cruelty actually is a horrible, cringe-inducing thing, even as the power of imagination to transport us from that horror is even stronger.
Now, I've reviewed a del Toro film here before, a low-budget stinker from the beginning of his career entitled Mimic; and I've seen Blade II and Hellboy as well, making Pan's Labyrinth my fourth film of his. And I talked in that first review already, in fact, about del Toro's curiously retro studio-era career; how he started by making a couple of maverick Spanish low-budget horror films in his native Mexico, then moved on to doing unexpectedly great jobs at crappy Hollywood B-movies that were assigned to him, eventually rising enough in power and respect to get such odd and personal genre projects made as Hellboy in the first place (which is based on an underground comic by Mike Mignola which is insanely loved by the Comic-Con set, but before the movie was barely known by the public at large). But let's be clear, that Pan's Labyrinth is an entirely different thing than this; it's not so much a genre piece but rather del Toro's attempt at a modern fairytale, which as those who know their history know, is actually an attempt to appeal to a wide audience using a simple story, as well as get across political points in a metaphorical way so as to increase the power of the actual message.
It's why, for example, del Toro sets the story in Spain during World War II, a truly terrible time in the country's history when Franco's fascist government had just won a bloody civil war, although with thousands of democracy-loving rebels still holed up in the hills and forests, causing whatever damage they can do to the "official" government as often as they can get away with. It's that last fact that takes fascist military leader Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez) out into the woods himself, along with a garrison of soldiers, to set up camp at a local mill and finally ferret out the rebels in this particular area. In the meanwhile, though, Vidal has a new wife as well named Carmen (Ariadna Gil) who he's recently gotten pregnant, and who is experiencing complications, which is why he's had her transferred to the mill camp as well, along with her 11-year-old daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) from a previous marriage.
The entire movie's ultimate success or failure, in fact, rests on the tiny shoulders of Ofelia, because the story ends up revolving around her; turns out that she is a highly precocious 11-year-old, extremely well-read and a particular fan of Victorian-era fantasy tales, with the premature gravitas of a child who has had a parent die early in life. When she discovers, then, that this rural section of Spain contains tons of ancient pagan ruins just at the edge of the mill compound, her mind starts racing with possibilities in order to keep her attention away from her "evil stepfather;" praying mantises turn into fairies, gnarled trees become hidden caches for buried treasure, and mischievous fauns are to be found at the bottoms of muddy sinkholes.
Or wait, is she making all of this up or not? That's what so brilliant about Pan's Labyrinth, after all, is that del Toro tells the entire story from the point-of-view of the little girl herself; so you never ultimately know if these are the depressingly sad fantasies of a traumatized child stuck amid the the horrors of fascist-territory WWII, or if she really is the lost princess of the underworld that the faun tells her, who hundreds of years ago assumed human form and has forgotten who she really is? And who needs to go on a series of three heroic quests in order to unlock her secret memories of it all? It's a fairytale, after all, a clearly fantastical movie, so maybe the whole thing of her being a forgotten magic princess is "true;" or maybe it really is the violence-soaked creations of a disturbed child who is slowly going crazy, transporting her more and more into a land of make-believe that she has some control over, instead of the random terrors of the real world she is witnessing on a daily basis these days.
Because that's something to clearly understand before watching this; that Pan's Labyrinth is a violent movie, an extremely violent movie, one that will deeply upset children if allowed to watch; and unlike del Toro's previous films, this is not a ridiculously beautiful ballet of over-the-top violence either (no slow-motion sword fights set to techno music, in other words), but rather the legitimately disgusting and disturbing violence that real people commit on a regular basis (people getting shot in the head at point-blank range, people getting stabbed in the hand with scissors, and a lot more). del Toro, in fact, has gone on record about why such horrific violence was so important to him here; because one of his old film mentors from Mexico was a survivor of the Spanish Civil War, and begged del Toro in his youth that if he was to ever make a movie set in those years, to "never, ever romanticize it."
And man, del Toro certainly avoids romanticism here; the real-world scenes of Pan's Labyrinth are in fact often brutal and gut-churning, and like Schindler's List never once let you forget how ingrained such horrors are to any fascist society that's ever existed. (It's no coincidence, for example, that the extreme torture that US soldiers have been caught at in recent years happened during the Bush administration; no coincidence at all.) And this is why I told the little story at the beginning of this essay that I did; because del Toro is in fact precisely known for his romanticization of violence, for constructing elaborate and exquisite choreographs of blood and bile that are intricately set to pulsing modern soundtracks. The violence here isn't like that; the violence here is the kind that will actually make you sick.
But then again, this is del Toro we're talking about, undisputed champion of awe-inspiring film-based visuals; and when it comes to the fantasy half of Pan's Labyrinth, the scenes where Ofelia is alone and among the underworld's various hangers-on, the images on display are enough to literally make you forget to breathe for a little bit, and can seriously sometimes make you literally breaks into tears because of their impossible beauty (if you're the kind who can be moved to tears by the beauty of visual images, that is, like I admittedly am). I mentioned in my Mimic review, for example, how del Toro knows how to do things with simple Klieg lights and colored gels that most directors spend their entire careers being puzzled by; and with Pan's Labyrinth I will simply double the strength of such a statement, with del Toro able to do things like shine a light on a swarm of gnats so that they literally appear to be a dancing golden rain-shower. It's no secret that, much like Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, del Toro here instructed his effects crew to use as few computer tools as humanly possible to achieve Pan's Labyrinth's look and feel; it's a directive that clearly shows up on the screen itself, a movie so visually stunning that at points you can scarcely believe you're actually watching it, that we live in an age that can actually produce such things.
Without hopefully giving away too much, it is basically what I've just said that carries Pan's Labyrinth through to its end; a combination of ugly fascist reality with a child's imagination, leading all involved to a climax that is either one of the most inspiring messages you've ever seen in a modern film, or the most wrist-slashingly depressing gotdang ending in the history of movies, depending on which interpretation mentioned above you wish to believe. Or maybe we should believe them both at once? It's an intriguing theory to be sure; that a little child's insistence on sticking to her humane ethics, no matter what the cost, literally did redeem her soul by the end of the events depicted, and transported her to a place she could not have gone by being a fascist sympathizer, like her kind-hearted but still misguided mother. No matter what you think, this movie is bound to leave you clutching your chest by the end, unable to believe at first that you've just taken in what you just have, with the full implications of what you saw maybe not even hitting you until days afterwards.
It's a...man. It's a very moving film, the kind that makes you believe in the power of that medium to transform our lives; and there's a very good reason it won three Oscars last year and is now the highest-grossing Spanish-language film in history. Like I said, it will make you look at this goofy fanboy an entirely new way, make you understand all the subtle things he's been trying to get across in his unique past Hollywood genre work; it's a revelation, in fact, to realize that lurking under that jokey lovable exterior is a mind that could create...this. If you haven't seen Pan's Labyrinth yet, I highly, highly recommend you do so; and you too will understand why it's such a crime that it didn't win every Best Picture accolade last year that is even offered.
Out of 10:
--For those who don't know, Sergi Lopez (who plays the blood-chilling fascist captain) is mostly known in his native Spain as the star of several slapstick comedies; in fact, rumor has it that several of del Toro's producers ran a campaign trying to get rid of him, in that they thought him utterly incapable of pulling it off. Boy, did he prove them all wrong, you know?
--This entire movie was first conceptualized as a series of hundreds of drawings and notes by del Toro himself, kept in a series of blank notebooks he carries with him everywhere, before a page of a traditional script was ever written. This is how he conceptualizes all his movies, in fact.
--Doug Jones, who plays the faun (as well as the creepy eyeless monster seen halfway through), also played Abe Sapien in Hellboy. He was the only member of the cast who didn't speak Spanish, and had to learn his lines phonetically (which were later dubbed anyway).
--And if you're curious, del Toro actually wrote all the English subtitles himself, after getting tired of all the sloppy translations seen in his previous films to undergo such a process.
Best viewed: In someone's suburban den that's been turned into one of those $30,000 big-screen high-def home movie theatres. It's films like these that are the entire reason home theatres were thought up in the first place.
Next on my queue list: Night Watch, the 2004 Russian sci-fi epic that got so much press, basically the post-Soviet film response to The Matrix. Brilliant or trainwreck? I've heard lots of people by now call it both, after all. We'll see soon!