Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Written & Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sergi Lopez, Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu
Color, 120 minutes
Before Pan's Labyrinth was released, Guillermo del Toro was an above-average genre filmmaker who had a bit of a cult following. I admit that even though I enjoyed most of his work, especially The Devil's Backbone, there was a small part of me that thought he was more than a bit overrated. Any time there is a director who makes an acceptable and enjoyable genre film, the geeks flock around like they're announcing the second coming of their messiah, so I tend to try and avoid the hype. I'm here to say that the geeks were right. With Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro not only proves that his work can go beyond an exercise in genre mechanics, he proves that his work can reach the highest levels of artistic expression.
Near the end of the Spanish Civil War, a young girl named Ofelia (Baquero), is traveling with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to the home of her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Lopez). The Captain is a cold man, and his estate reflects his personality. Ofelia retreats into her books until she meets a fairy disguised as a kind of stick bug. The fairy leads her into a labyrinth in the middle of the forest that's ran by a towering faun, who tells her that she is Princess Moanna , "daughter of the underworld." The faun gives her three tasks to complete before the coming of the full moon in order to prove her "essence." The tasks include a giant vomiting toad and The Pale Man, an ogre that is obviously influenced by Francisco Goya, but that's creepy enough to give Francis Bacon nightmares. Ofelia is up to the challenge, and the viewer is led on a magical, surprising, violent, and ultimately heartbreaking journey that will affect you in ways you wouldn't believe.
Like Neil Marshall's work on his imaginative film The Descent, del Toro takes no pains to hide his influences. Little Red Riding Hood, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (also set during Franco-era Spain), and Kubrick's version of The Shining are all lovingly referenced, but del Toro's vision is his own. Instead of becoming a simple Fascist allegory, del Toro pushes his material higher, bringing out the amount of fear and imagination present in the soul of every child. His goal is extremely ambitious, he wants us to remember this film, and by God, he succeeds.
With the help of his usual cinematographer, the brilliant Guillermo Navarro (Jackie Brown), and production designer Eugenio Caballero, del Toro constructs two entirely different, yet always believable worlds ( the magical, warm and welcoming, and the real, cold and sterile) that are always at odds with each other, and del Toro's constantly mobile camera makes the most of each moment . The technical aspects of this film are nothing short of astonishing, none more so than the marriage of CGI, puppets, and makeup. Pan's achieves a balance between these three that would make Peter Jackson salivate.
In lesser films, the performances would take a backseat to the more fantastical elements, but here, the actors find the drama in the story, and carve out their own piece of the pie. Lopez's Captain Vidal is one of the most frightening villains in recent history, and Maribel Verdu, who was so effortlessly sexy in Alfonso Cuaron's Y tu mama tambien, is fabulous as Mercedes, the homely yet strong willed servant who becomes a type of surrogate mother to Ofelia. Doug Jones, doing double duty as both the faun and The Pale Man, goes way beyond mimicry and touches on something far deeper than is usually required. In the end, however, it's Baquero that owns the film. She gives Ofelia the right amount of intelligence and bewilderment that avoids the typical cliches of childhood acting and automatically makes the audience buy into this little girl's fantasy. Her performance is strong enough to rank her alongside the best portrayals given by children, right up there with Henry Thomas in E.T., Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, and Ana Torrent in both The Spirit of the Beehive and Cria cuervos.
Pan's Labyrinth was the best reviewed film of 2006, and it easily stands next to Cuaron's Children of Men, and Almodovar's Volver as my personal favorites of the year. This is a remarkable work, an instant classic that demands and rewards repeated viewings. It is a masterpiece, plain and simple, and it will surely stand the test of time.