Saturday, January 06, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is a fantasy, an adult fairy tale by Guillermo del Toro and his most ambitious film to date. Like his earlier Devil’s Backbone, it is set during the Spanish civil war, when the fascist regime of Franco was in power.

It initially evokes Tim Burton’s works of fantasy like Sleepy Hollow. But while Burton’s imaginings are often either children’s fairy tales that accommodate adults or vice versa, Pan’s Labyrinth includes a dark and occasionally brutal layer of plot realism that precludes pre-teens. Think of it as an adults-only version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Alice in Wonderland.

The style and texture of the film are gorgeous. The sets are beautifully detailed. The cinematography is wonderful with sumptuous use of colour and lighting. There are lots of shadows – as you might expect from a film about the underworld.

Perhaps the most captivating aspect of the film is the array of fantasy characters and creatures that inhabit the underworld, especially the Pale Man (played by American mime Doug Jones, who also portrays Pan). Del Toro claims the dark and perverse works of artists Goya and Arthur Rackman were the inspiration for the characters. CGI, animatronics, special effects and makeup are all used to better than usual effect.

Del Toro states that he makes human stories with horror or fantasy grafted onto them. I found Pan’s Labyrinth primarily a fantasy film with a human story woven into it. The film works better on the level of fantasy – it is both more interesting and more engaging. The human story relies too much on stereotyped characters that don’t quite stack up against our expectation of reality. Think Cinderella and her evil step-mother and step-sisters.

I find the layers conflicted. On the one hand the realism layer looks excellent. But the characters are caricatured. I reconciled this by remembering that this is, after all, a fairy tale. But it requires a mental adjustment – a conscious effort to overlook a perceived inconsistency that interrupts the natural flow of the film.

I have a problem with the violence, mostly surrounding the character of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). It is much more graphically brutal than required. The director’s stated intention is to depict fascism as a greater evil than anything the underworld can produce, but I don’t know if that justifies the level of grisliness. It precludes children and yet the fairy tale plot may be too naïve for some adults. So there is an internal discord within the film.

In Harry, He is Here to Help (2000), Lopez gave such an accomplished and nuanced performance depicting character ambiguity, so his one-dimensional character in Pan’s Labyrinth appears to owe more to the film’s writing and direction than his ability. This was perhaps a waste of Lopez’s talents. The acting performances were generally quite good. Eleven-year old Ivana Baquero as Ofelia was mostly convincing (except for one contrivance during the scene with the Pale Man).

A defining element that has many a film screening in Australian arthouse cinemas is not that it is actually an arthouse or independent film, but rather that it is in a foreign language. Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (Nochnoy Dozor, 2004) was for me just another Hollywood horror flick, in Russian language with English subtitles. Perhaps Pan’s Labyrinth is a little more imaginative than Night Watch, but still somewhat in this category. It’s certainly visually arresting, but visuals alone are not enough to carry a film.

I find it interesting that Pan’s Labrynth was produced (uncredited) by Pedro Almodóvar, who also likes to mix genres (typically comedy and drama). Like Almodóvar’s films, the mix doesn’t quite work to the degree aspired for.

Overall, I found Pan’s Labyrinth a fascinating visual and visceral experience. In spite of reservations about the violence and despite its flaws, it has many interesting aspects that make it worth seeing.

Dir, Scr: Guillermo del Toro Rating: TBC Duration: 112 min Genre: fantasy/horror/drama Language: Spanish Country: Mexico/Spain/USA Release: 18/1/07, limited Dist: Hopscotch Films Prod Co: Tequila Gang Prod: Guillermo del Toro, Bertha Navarro, Alfonso Cuarón, Frida Torresblanco, Álvaro Áugustín Sound Des: Miguel Polo Phot: Guillermo Navarro Ed: Bernat Vilaplana Prod Des: Eugenio Caballero Mus: Javier Navarrete Cast: Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Alex Angulo

Official website / IMDB

Further reading: interviews with Guillermo del Toro
The Guardian interview
Q&A session at Embracadero Landmark
The Evening Class interview


Marina said...

I am very excited to see this one. It opens here next week and I'm waiting to post my Top 10 list for 06 until I see it because, from the sounds of things, it may actually crack it. Excellent review.

ksklein said...

I think the movie is great - though very different from what I had expected. It is brutal but beautiful and the music is just wonderful.