"Pan's Labyrinth"

I find that I have been rather lax in keeping up with the films and DVDs I have seen this month, so I am seizing the day in a truly uncharacteristic manner:

I fear that Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" may have suffered from the same hype effect that plagued my reading of "The Book Thief." Both were experiences I enjoyed, but I had expected something transcendent, and walked away with a tepid admiration rather than the transformative joy and proselytizing zeal that I felt owed.

Nonetheless, I have very little to criticize about "Pan's Labyrinth," del Toro's dark fairy tale of family struggles and fascist Spain, and much to admire intellectually. The heroine of "Pan's Labyrinth" is the spectacularly named Ofelia, a young girl whose widowed mother has married a fascist officer. Ofelia and her heavily pregnant mother go to live at her stepfather's gothically rural estate, which is filled with dank, thick-walled cellars; crooked, pagan ruins (including the titular labyrinth); and surreptitious rebels. Ofelia quickly becomes ensnared by an elaborate fantasy world whose reality wars constantly and productively with the echoing "real world" events of the post-civil war fallout. Father issues enter the labyrinth of the fairy tale and become self-proving quests, emerging on the other side of the metaphor as a reaction to fascism. But is the fairy tale a metaphor for the civil war, or vice versa?

What, the film asks again and again, is the proper relationship of the individual to "the rules"? In traversing this question, it moves through the entire history of Western myth, from Persephone (SPOILER - The biggest lesson I learned from this film was this: every time you eat a grape, a fairy dies. It has really altered my diet. END SPOILER) to "Labyrinth" (a central film experience of my childhood).

I wish that I hadn't waited so long to write this review, because so many of the details that fascinated me have faded into the vagaries of my mind, but suffice it to say that the movie works very, very well intellectually. Its failings (very minor ones) for me were in aesthetic areas that others praised: the special effects sometimes seemed jarringly integrated into the live action, and the star, Ivana Baquero, is a bit self-conscious in her acting, by which I mean that she seems constantly aware of the camera and the fact that she is acting with special effects rather than real creatures.

Nonetheless, the world that the film creates is engrossing (largely thanks to a brutally creaky soundtrack that leaves you convinced you are covered in insects) and complex. It is no criticism when I say that the "historical" world that del Toro creates seems no more "real" than the fantasy world Ofelia discovers in the labyrinth: the fascist world is exposed as false and contrived in its very underpinnings. The urges and needs of both worlds are the same: hunger, fear, fraternity, connection, individual choice.

"Pan's Labyrinth" (2006)
dir. Guillermo del Toro

Other things that go bump in the night:

  • The official movie site for Pan's Labyrinth is filled with glowing praise for the movie (beware the hype effect!), but also includes an abundance of behind-the-scenes and making-of type content, del Toro's podcast, and information about where you can see the film.
  • Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic both summarize (and quantify) the largely ecstatic reception the film has received from critics.
  • Jim Emerson reviews the film for rogerebert.com, and traces the lineage of "Pan's Labyrinth" from "Alice in Wonderland" to Bunuel.
  • Wikipedia provides a startlingly complete plot summary and a flurry of other information (including some rather interesting points about influences).

3 Responses so far.

  1. kookie says:

    Really? I've eaten MORE grapes since I've seen the movie. Fairies are nothing but trouble. *chuckles*

    I enjoyed the movie, but I didn't like the ending. I would have been happier if the line between the real and the fantasy world had been more blurry.

    The fella that played the Captain, however, was amazing.

  2. I totally agree about the Captain, kookiejar. A number of the reviews I've read/listened to have cited his character as a major flaw in the film, because he is too purely evil. But this is a fairy tale, and characters have symbolic (rather than psychologically nuanced, novelistic) roles to fill. I thought that he did an excellent job of being archetypally villainous while still demonstrating a remarkable sense of restraint and nuance.

    I too would have liked an ending which unscored the ambiguity of the fantasy world (is it simply a coping strategy for this abused and neglected girl? Or is the real world in fact a metaphor for an underlying mystical struggle that is somehow *more real* than reality?).

  3. My husband and I went to see this one tonight. It wasn't until a coworker mentioned the film to me last week, highly recommending it, that I took an interest in it. I really can't say I have heard much about it--hardly any hype at all. I thought it was very well done and am so glad we decided to see it in the theater.

    I think the Captain did an amazing job as well. Very evil man, but brillant acting on his part.

Leave a Reply