Friday, September 5, 2008

Pan's Labyrinth: Fantasy illuminates a dark period of real history

Warning: Spoilers abound in this review.

A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a princess who dreamt of the human world.

Two years after its release, I finally got around to watching Pan's Labyrinth. I wish I hadn't waited that long. Although I don't watch a lot of movies these days it's one of the best films I've seen in years.

At the beginning of the film a mother and a daughter are riding in the back of a car. The girl is reading a fairy tale and her mother looks on with disapproval. "Fairy tales--you're a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense," she says.

Director/writer Guillermo Del Toro then spends the next two hours proving her wrong, as well as the critics who hold fantasy in a similar regard.

We've all heard it before: Fantasy is for children. It's a tired and wrong-headed belief, yet too many of the literary establishment either ignores or treats works like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronciles of Narnia with outright contempt.

Should we see a few more films like Pan's Labyrinth, however, these arguments might dissipate forever. Pan's Labyrinth is not Narnia or Wonderland. It's concerned with the hard stuff of history, grim and painful and violent and adult, but there is magic and wonder at its heart, too. It's fantasy at its best: Impossible places and beings that, while otherworldly, allow us to see the real world in a sharper focus.

For those who haven't seen it, Pan's Labyrinth takes place in 1944 Spain after the Spanish Civil War. World War II is reaching a fever pitch and it's a time of incredible turmoil and violence in Europe. In Spain, fascists of the Francisco Franco regime are attempting to take control of the country.

In the midst of these violent times, Ofelia, a young girl with an active imagination and a love for fairy tales, and her pregnant mother Carmen travel to an outpost in the mountains where a ruthless fascist force led by Captain Vidal is trying to wipe out a pocket of guerilla resistance (Ofelia's father, a tailor, was killed in the war, and Carmen and Vidal have recently married).

The outpost is located near an ancient stone labyrinth, where Ofelia encounters a faun and some fairies. The faun tells Ofelia that she is a princess of a fantastic underground realm, accessible by a winding stair in the labyrinth's center. But before Ofelia can return she must complete three difficult tasks.

For the rest of the film Ofelia tries to complete her tasks as the bloody and terrible events of the real world unfold around her. A few members of the household covertly provide food and supplies to the rebels and Vidal mercilessly tortures and murders all those he suspects of aiding them. Carmen develops complications from her pregnancy and Vidal tells the doctor to save his son, not his wife, for whom he cares little. Vidal holds Ofelia in even less regard.

My only criticism was that the horrifying real world events at times threaten to overwhelm Ofelia's storyline and the fantasy elements. But Del Toro's master hand provides balance, using Ofelia's fantasy experienes to draw parallels with the fascist movement.

Del Toro never reveals whether Ofelia's "experiences" are the workings of her overactive imagination or real events. But he does hint that her fantasies are real, or at least have real world consquences. For example, Ofelia as one of her tasks has to recover a magic dagger from the hall of the Pale Man, a gruesome child-eating monster who sits motionless at the end of a long table overflowing with food, stirring only when someone eats his food. Ofelia fails to heed the faun's warning and eats two grapes. The Pale Man lurches after her, killing two of her fairy companions. In the real world, Ofelia's mother dies in childbirth and a freedom fighter is captured and killed.

Although the Pale Man is terrifying (it's worth watching Pan's Labyrinth for this scene alone), the real monster of the film is Vidal. Ofelia's struggles with the monsters of fantasy are all reflections of the evil inherent in her stepfather and fascism as a whole. In the end, Ofelia is required to murder an innocent infant to reach the underground fantasy realm. She refuses to follow orders, which is precisely what so many of the rank and file in Nazi Germany failed to do. The horrors of the Final Solution were the result.

Del Toro also includes some homages to his fantasy influences. These include Alice in Wonderland (Ofelia descends downwards into a hole) and the Wizard of Oz (a brief glimpse of red shoes when Ofelia crosses over into the land of fantasy). There's even a nod to Jackson's Lord of the Rings--In one scene nine fascist riders surround a woman working covertly for the freedom fighters, clutching a blade to her own throat as she prepares for suicide over capture. There's others that I probably missed. One viewing is not enough to take in all of the references and allusions in this film.

The end of the movie is heartbreaking, but also uplifting, as Ofelia returns to an underground realm "where there are neither lies nor pain." Is she in paradise, or is this "underground realm" merely the cold comfort of the grave? Del Toro does not provide the answer, but offers plenty of evidence to support either conclusion.

Suffice to say that I am now very much at ease with Del Toro directing The Hobbit. After watching Pan's Labyrinth, I have no doubts he can meet my and the rest of the Tolkien fanbase's lofty expectations for this film.


Anonymous said...

I think he's a great director for genre movies. I can say this with confidence after I actually ended up enjoying Blade II.


Brian Murphy said...

Hi Matt, Pan's Labyrinth is the only Del Toro film I've seen, so I can't speak to that. But I will say that Pan's Labyrinth isn't a genre film. I'd call it drama with a heavy fantasy influence.

Julie D. said...

You know, I never connected the grapes and fairies' deaths with the deaths in the real world. Thanks for that insight. I, too, LOVED Pan's Labyrinth and have great hopes for del Toro's treatment of The Hobbit.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Julie, I may have been reaching a bit with that connection, but it seemed like Del Toro was drawing an allusion with the grapes to "forbidden fruit." I at first wondered why Ofelia would go for the grapes, given all the other wonderful food on the table, but it seemed as though this was deliberate on Del Toro's part.