Thursday, September 06, 2007

Guillermo Del Toro, "Pan's Labyrinth"(2006)

Ever since I was first exposed to Guillermo Del Toro's work, I've been uncertain whether or not I like his films. His movies generally fall into two categories- serious art films, and blockbuster action flicks. I caught his debut feature Cronos (1993) years ago. While it featured an interesting setting and creative special effects, I felt the story was lacking. It could be that I'm just not that interested in the mythos of vampires, no mater how original the take. The movie did give me reason to anticipate future work from the young director. I waited patiently for The Devil's Backbone (2001). Again I found the settings and atmosphere extremely evocative, yet I stil felt the story was a bit lacking. But after this noble effort, Del Toro began to release typical superhero dreck like Blade 2 and Hellboy. While I'm sure that his facility for special effects served that material, I had no interest in watching it. Finally Del Toro returned to the territory of Backbone with Pan's Labyrinth. I wondered why it took so long.

What's especially puzzling to some is why Del Toro seems fixated on the Spanish Civil War. The director was born in Mexico, and seemingly has no direct connections to Spain. But Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, and his upcoming film 3993 share that setting. So why has he made so many films in which this particular event sets the background for the story? Apparently when Del Toro was trying to get financing for Devil's Backbone, he couldn't generate any interest in his own country. When Spaniard Pedro Almodovar (director of such films as Talk to Her and All About My Mother) decided to get involved, Del Toro switched his chosen setting from the Mexican Revolution. It seemed to be a good fit, and the cruelty of Franco resonated with the young filmmaker. He decided to do a Spanish Civil War trilogy that he is just now completing.

While some viewers are frustrated with Del Toro's particular obsessions, I appreciate the fact that he has consistently worked with strikingly original material. Even his "superhero" fare dealt with low profile, obscure figures. In a day and age when US filmmakers feel compelled to continually remake slasher films from the 70's, Del Toro is bringing a new vision (even if he does occcasionally resort to sequels). Pan's Labyrinth is the kind of dark fairy tale that resonates in your subconscious long after you see it. It concerns the plight of a young girl named Ofelia whose father has passed away and whose mother has remarried. The stepfather is a high-placed Spanish officer in the service of Franco, responsible for crushing the last remnants of resistance. He is a brutal and exceedingly cruel character, played convincingly by Sergi Lopez (With a Friend Like Harry). He's arranged for his pregnant wife to live in an old mill among his troops, while they track and kill the rebels in the forest.

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) has a head full of fantasy to arm herself against the privations and darkness of her new environment. She meets a large flying insect that assumes the form of a faerie, and is guided to the ruins of an ancient labyrinth. When she descends to the bottom of its core, she meets a creepy and somehow graceful faun who becomes her taskmaster in the ethereal world of her dreams. At the same time her mother is experiencing ever worsening difficulty due to her pregnancy, and Ofelia feels increasingly isolated from humans. She finds support from Mercedes (Maribel Verdu)- a beautiful woman who serves as the head of domestics at the mill, and has a secret life of her own. As Ofelia works her way through a series of ever demanding tasks (and meets a series of ghastly creatures), the conflict between the stepfather and the rebels intensifies. The pace of the story is unyielding but accomodates enough character development to please sophisticated viewers.

I'm glad I gave Del Toro another chance instead of writing him off as a once-promising-talent-turned-Hollywood-hack. Aside from the fact that he is bringing a refreshing sense of novelty to mainstream cinema, his instincts for atmosphere and his ambiguous presentation of monsters make this film especially worthwhile viewing. He also finds success with the cast. Baquero notably avoids the treacle of many child actors, and Verdu is a lot of fun to look at. Del Toro seems to have finally brought all of the components of filmmaking together. In my opinion he has finally proven his ability to present a consistently engaging story. Despite the fact that Pan's Labyrinth has a downbeat tone and lacks the traditional happy ending- Del Toro has managed to suffuse his dark tale with an escapist magic that is unforgettable.

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Blogger DanielleUSA said...

nice review thanks!

2:18 AM  
Anonymous jefg99 said...

I watched it this morning. It was a coincidence in that I had DVR'd it earlier in the week, then read your review. It grabbed me from the opening and held onto me tightly for 2 hours. The character of each character was set within the first 10 minutes; i.e.; there was no guessing who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Sometimes that lessens the suspense, but not in this case. I also really enjoyed the vividness of the cinematography. Oh, and at least one of the film's messages was clear..."I don't (blindly" obey (no matter who you are) without questioning." I gave it *****'s.

11:11 PM  

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