Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pan’s Labyrinth: Del Toro’s Great Horror-Fantasy


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Like the title character(s) of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — which would actually make a good story for him to film — Guillermo del Toro is two personalities in one body. The American Guillermo del Toro knows what’s required of a modern-day horror-film director, and methodically churns it out: steel-grey Gothic imagery, teenagers in peril and blood, blood, blood spurting everywhere. But get him out of this country — either to his native Mexico or to Spain, where he’s made his two best films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth — and he turns into a different director altogether, filling his films with human emotion and genuine terror, and creating legitimately frightening sequences instead of just freaking out his audiences with the modern-day de rigueur blood and gore.

Like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth is a horror fable set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, with a child as the central character. In The Devil’s Backbone the child-hero was a boy who discovered a dark secret associated with the building in which his school was housed, which was simultaneously under regular bombing raids at the height of the war (in which Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, allies of the right-wing “Phlangist” movement of Francisco Franco which ultimately won, tried out the “Blitzkrieg” tactics they later used in World War II). In Pan’s Labyrinth the year is 1944, Franco’s forces have taken over the country and established their dictatorship, and while Franco was smart enough to stay out of World War II (thereby ensuring that when the Allies won they’d let him stay in power and, indeed, the U.S. would support him as a bulwark against Communism), his forces are working the Spanish countryside bent on exterminating the last remaining anti-Franco partisans mounting a resistance.

Pan’s Labyrinth opens on the road to an isolated town in the mountains, with Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a girl on the cusp of teenagerhood — del Toro’s script doesn’t specify her age, but the actress was 12 when she made the film — being taken by her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to join her current husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), who’s leading a company of Franco’s feared secret police, the Guardia Civil, against the remaining rebels in the mountains. Though Carmen says she’s too old to be reading them, Ofelia is still obsessed with fairy tales in general and one fairy tale in particular: a story about an underground kingdom whose reigning princess escaped to the surface world, was blinded by its light and ultimately forgot who she was and where she was from, accepting an identity as an Earth person.

At a stop in the road, Ofelia finds a chunk of sculpted stone and the idol it got chipped off from. She puts the chunk back where it initially belonged, and that’s her entrée into the underground fairyland of her dreams. Not that it turns out anything like the way she thought it would, and here the English title of the film is deceptive. The original Spanish is El Laberinto del Fauno — not “Pan,” usually depicted these days as a cute, mischievous little godlet playing on a set of reed pipes more recently used by Zamfir and other New Age musical bores, but a more sinister “faun,” played via motion-capture technology by gangly actor Doug Jones. The faun leads her into an underground realm featuring giant toads, sinister insects, slime (it wouldn’t be a del Toro film without slime!), a “pale man” (also played by Jones) with a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style taste in food and a sumptuous spread which Ofelia, living her “normal” life in a war-torn country under heavy rationing, is solemnly instructed not to eat or drink from, setting up a temptation obviously evoking a parallel with the story of Adam, Eve, the apple, the serpent and the origin of sin.

It’s indicative of this movie’s curious appeal that the “normal” story going on above ground is a good deal bloodier and more violent than the horror fantasy taking place beneath it. Captain Vidal is a typical unsmiling fanatic, like all too many figures on both sides of the current “war on terror,” describing his enemies as vermin or infections that need to be exterminated for the health of the overall country. His main concern at the moment is the fact that his store of supplies is being raided by the rebels to sustain themselves, and his growing conviction that there’s a “mole” in his base, someone who’s helping the rebels with food, ammunition and information. He’s also impregnated Carmen and is convinced their child is going to be a boy (even though in 1944 there was no way to tell in advance), and in one chilling scene he makes his priorities clear when he tells the camp doctor that if it comes down to a choice, he’s to let his wife die so the child can be born healthy and continue the name of Vidal and the family’s military reputation. Vidal’s most prized possession is a wristwatch with a broken face (though it still tells time); it was formerly owned by his father, and dad smashed in the face just before he was killed so his son would remember exactly when he died.

Del Toro meshes his two stories effectively and not always in the ways you’d expect. Rather than a source of liberation, the fairy kingdom Ofelia descends into is just a reflection of her above-ground reality, with a faun commander who in his own way is just as authoritarian, just as obsessed with “obedience,” as Vidal. Though it’s an oddly claustrophobic and physically dark film — even in the above-ground sequences the sky always seems gloomy and overcast, and one aches for the sight of some of the fabled Spanish sun — it’s photographed by Guillermo Navarro in a way that avoids both steel-grey and brown clichés. The gritty reality of the rebels’ existence and the only slightly better-off camp-dwellers (there’s a grimly amusing sequence in which a Franco official holds bags of some unpleasant-looking flour-based substance and announces that the regime has won the war against starvation and can now provide all its citizens this wonderful bread) play off the dank abundance of the faun’s world. Even the plot’s magical elements, notably a piece of chalk with which one can create a doorway just by drawing one on a wall, are handled in a matter-of-fact fashion instead of the look-what-we-can-do-with-computers showing-off we’re used to in American films.

Pan’s Labyrinth is effectively acted, especially by Ivana Baquero as Ofelia. Not since Kirsten Dunst out-acted Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt and created a chillingly controlled portrait of evil in Interview with the Vampire has it been so easy to predict adult stardom for a child performer. Sergi López is equally intense, making Vidal an all-too-believable macho fanatic who seems to have stepped out of today’s cable news shows instead of inhabiting a movie set in 1944. So is Maribel Verdú as Mercedes, a servant with a secret of her own. Ariadna Gil is less impressive, but that’s more a function of the character than any limitations on her as a performer; del Toro’s script gives her little to do but suffer, and in an otherwise well plotted film he never quite tells us what happened to Ofelia’s father or why Carmen should have chosen to remarry someone as obviously awful for her as Vidal. Still, Pan’s Labyrinth is a great film, well worth watching, rich in allusions and mythic metaphors while at the same time managing some genuine scares that are all the more frightening because del Toro has made us care about these people instead of just setting them up as cardboard victims.

Pan’s Labyrinth is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 299-2100 for showtimes and other information.