The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Pan's Labyrinth

Full review behind the jump

Pan’s Labyrinth

: Guillermo Del Toro
: Guillermo Del Toro
: Álvaro Augustín, Alfonso Cuarón, Bertha Navarro, Guillermo del Toro, Frida Torresblanco
: Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo

There are some powerful ideas at the heart of
Pan’s Labyrinth, an elegant dark fantasy from filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Cronos, Mimic, Hellboy); but two are, I think, of the deepest importance. First: that there are times in all our lives where we desperately need to believe there’s a better world for our children than the ugly one we’re providing. And second: that children have a way of building their own reality in order to process what they sense happening around them, in spite of our best efforts to shield them.

That cognitive gap is powerful – a grown-up cannot possibly understand why, after bathing a girl, putting her in a lovely dress and stressing repeatedly that the girl
must show up for a nice dinner looking clean, that the girl will show up late, and covered from head to toe in mud. Children have an equally difficult time understanding the arbitrary disciplines of adults, always telling them to do this thing now, never touch that, don’t go in there, and never saying why. Children, it seems, are more resourceful at conjuring up explanations, and it is possible this is why they can show such resilience in the most nightmarish of circumstances. It was Harlan Ellison who wrote that the reason the dinosaurs died out was “Because they had no imagination.”

And I think Ellison would appreciate the
contrasts of Pan’s Labyrinth, which is where the magic comes from. Because Del Toro conjures up a morbid fairy-tale world out of elements whose power over our younger selves we still remember – kingdoms and magical creatures and dangerous monsters and hidden passages from our world to another – and then sets it against the backdrop of a most real and unforgiving horror, a hopeless prison of violence which has now drawn children within its walls. It is the blood of the grown-up world which gives the imaginary world of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) such urgent potency. We do not know how she would get by without it.

Ofelia is the daughter of Carmen (Ariadna Gil), a tailor’s widow in the Spanish Civil War in the 1940’s. Carmen has done what she has determined is necessary to provide for her family – she’s married and been impregnated by Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), a man of great importance who desperately wants a son. To her this is the kind of luck that rarely shines on a woman of her means, and she encourages young Ofelia: “…call him father. It’s just a word, Ofelia, just a word.

You can tell a lot about a culture by whom it promotes to authority, Vidal lives with the sadistic relish of a man who has arrived just in time for history to accommodate his fascist bullying. He seems to honestly believe that the only reason the rebels continue to gather in the hills, and the peasants continue to grumble in the village, is that they are too simple to understand how good their lives can be if they just do exactly what he says. That when he gives them each a small ration of bread from the locked storage room he is demonstrating the generosity of their government. That when he beats a helpless man to death he is acting as an example of courage for his soldiers. López provides a performance of terrifying magnetism, you know the threat inside this man just by watching the proud meticulousness of his daily shave.

And while his world is one of intrigue, of chasing the rebels and wondering how they’re getting medical supplies and information, and a maid (Maribel Verdú) in his household shows an iron will performing these treasons right under his nose, Ofelia wanders the woods around the mill, and an old labyrinth on the villa grounds. And she follows a bug that turns out to be a fairy, and meets a faun (Doug Jones) with a musty voice whose whole body creaks like wood, who tells her she is the reborn Princess of the underground kingdom, and that if she can pass three trials, she can finally return to her father, the King, who misses her terribly.

Ours is not to determine the objective reality of Ofelia’s experiences, but to appreciate their ornately-macabre design, Del Toro’s restraint in using digital effects only when absolutely necessary, and the way these leaps into the fantastic subconsciously fold around her outside life. What fear is represented by a pale ghoul (Jones again) whose eyes are in the palms of his hands, so when he reaches for you he is also looking deep into you? How important is it that what the kindly physician (Álex Angulo) says to the Capitán about the evil of blind obedience finds an echo in the faun’s final challenge? How much is Ofelia’s imagination serving her own needs, and how much her fear for her yet-unborn brother who is causing her mother such pain? The notion that she can make her own doors with a piece of chalk, and that the grown-ups do not always think to look under the bed before they have important conversations, lead us to wonder just how much of the plot Ofelia is privy to even if we don’t always see her on the screen.

Del Toro’s reputation is that of a horror filmmaker, and the connective thread here is that many of the fairy tales we most remember are, in fact, horror stories, where apples are poisoned and wolves eat the people we love. Children grow up not by ignoring the complexity and seriousness of the adult world, but by gradually reducing it through filters that train their emotional intellect until they can discard them. Stories are a crucial part of that, and the scariest can be the best.

The last few years have seen a blessing of movies that don’t condescend about the world of children. Not all of them are for children’s eyes, and the grisly violence that exists in one half of Pan’s Labyrinth puts it squarely in that category. It is compelling because it does not romanticize the child’s experience, does not promise us anything about the child’s safety or happiness in such an ugly place. But it sees where love, and dreams, can exist even here, and it treasures that.


  • Great review ... I've wanted to see Del Toro's movie ever since I heard it way back at the time of Cannes, and I think I might finally get to this weekend ... On paper, the movie it most reminds me of is Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures," which is a movie I just can't live without

    By Blogger Reel Fanatic, at 12:13 PM  

  • Heavenly Creatures is one I'm often recommending to people myself.

    By Blogger Nick, at 1:20 PM  

  • Yeah, Heavenly Creatures kinda defined the genre, although Fisher King and Finding Neverland are somewhat similar as well.

    By Anonymous Vanihm, at 6:58 AM  

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