A review of Pan's Labyrinth, by Brian J. Showers © August 2006
Published in All Hallows October 2006 and Machenalia Winter 2006.
"I've had so many names . . . old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce. I am the mountain, the forest and the earth. I am . . . I am a faun. Your most humble servant, your Highness."AT THE END of August, I flew from Dublin to Stockholm to attend a wedding with my partner. We were supposed to spend the couple of days before the wedding relaxing in a secluded cottage in south central Sweden, but, despite insane airport security (they were confiscating deadly items such as chapstick and pencils), we braved a hectic, twenty-four hour excursion to London and returned to Sweden, travel-worn, mere hours before the start of the wedding. Why did we put ourselves through such exhausting lengths, you ask? The answer's easy. We were lucky enough to get tickets for the opening film of London's FrightFest film festival. And the opening film this year was Guillermo del Toro's highly anticipated Pan's Labyrinth. What made this strenuous feat even more enticing was the fact that del Toro himself would be in attendance to introduce the film and answer questions. How could you pass up an event like that, I ask?
When we showed up, not only was del Toro present, but also Alfonso Cuarón, director of Y tu mama también and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Cuarón and del Toro are long-time friends, both being Mexican directors who have supported each other's careers in the climb towards international recognition. Cuarón's support this time was as a co-producer on Pan's, and to introduce del Toro to this fawning London audience. After Cuarón's suitably bawdy anecdote describing del Toro's monster design for some Catholic nuns, the man of the hour, dressed in a black t-shirt and black jeans, took the stage to thunderous applause. Even from row K, seat 23, I could see a sylvan grin peaking out from the director's trademark wild man beard.
We were, del Toro said in his mild Guadalajaran accent, to be what he considered Pan's Labyrinth's first true public audience. The only other two screenings to date had been at a private viewing in Los Angeles and at the Cannes Film Festival, where Pan's won no awards, but was honoured with a twenty-five minute standing ovation--the longest in the history of the festival. The people have clearly spoken.
Del Toro was admittedly nervous if slightly confused that he was asked to première Pan's Labyrinth at FrightFest, a festival typically known for its focus on gore and hard horror. "The only tits you'll see tonight are mine," he said, cupping his own breasts. Del Toro does not hesitate with his language or his enthusiasm. "I hope you fucking love this film as much as I do. And if you do, go out and tell others to see it." The budget for Pan's, he told us, was a mere 15 million (USD); little remained for an advertising campaign. He hopes that the natural qualities of the film will be the spark, and that word of mouth will fuel a raging fire all the way to the Oscars. And like a prophet, dazzled by the light, I will do my duty to help spread the word. It is probably best to start with the story.
The year is 1944, not long after the grim conclusion of the Spanish Civil War. A pocket of Republican resistance is still hiding in a remote region of Aragón, and Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a meticulously cruel agent of the new fascist state, has been sent there to wipe them out. Enter precocious and imaginative young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who recently married the Captain and is now carrying his soon-to-be-born child. At the behest of Captain Vidal, the family has made the dangerous move to an old mill in the middle of the isolated war zone. Even though bullets fly daily in the forest around them, "A son should always be near his father," says Vidal of his unborn child, and with chilling disregard for the rest of his family.
Amidst the madness of reality, Ofelia discovers on the grounds of the mill an old stone labyrinth. Following the labyrinth to its heart, she finds a staircase that descends to an ornamented and long-forgotten chamber in the final stages of decay. Dwelling amongst the vines and ruin is an old faun (Doug Jones), who may or may not be the Pan of Machen and Blackwood, Greece and Rome. As the shaggy faun moves towards Ofelia, his aged joints creak like ancient tree branches. Ofelia does not show fear at the sight of this fantasy in flesh. Like the recent additions of death and suffering to Ofelia's world, the faun, just by virtue of its existence, also becomes an unquestionable part of her rapidly changing reality
The faun tells Ofelia that within her lays the immortal soul of a princess, and to regain her kingdom she must complete three tasks. Among these tasks includes confronting what is del Toro's most terrifying creation to date: the Pale Man. The Pale Man, also played by go-to creature man Doug Jones, and fully realised by Spain's CafeFX team, is an eyeless, skeletal fiend with blackened fingertips and a shambling walk that suggests joints too loose beneath its sagging, shrimp-coloured skin.
Ofelia obediently completes each of the faun's requests, and as the violence and insanity of the real world increases, the world of fantasy slowly begins to make a certain sense. Inevitably, the two worlds collide with Ofelia caught at the nexus, confronted by a choice--it is here where del Toro plays a chord so grand and masterful that all emotions are called upon at once.
The dramatic drive of the film is Captain Vidal, who is played Sergi López with chilling realism. He is clean cut ("Evil should wear a handsome face," says del Toro), and in many scenes is found preening himself in front of a mirror. Vidal carries with him a fetish, a symbol of the persistence of fascism--his father's gold pocket watch. Clockwork seems to be among del Toro's own fetishes; he has used it memorably in other films to signify power and evil: Cronos's mechanical scarab and Hellboy's tick-tock Nazi, Kroenen, are two such examples. Already cold-blooded in most scenes, where López really manages to disturb are his interactions with the Rebels, which more often than not end in scenes of torture. We get the impression that this is Captain Vidal's real passion in life. One such scene occurs early in the film when Vidal beats two starving hunters to death with a wine bottle. The camera is unflinching to his cruelty, and every sickening blow is heightened by the most visceral audio effect courtesy of sound designer Martín Hernández. When one learns from del Toro that this piece of cinematic violence is based on an event that actually happened during the Spanish Civil War, the scene's message is given a startling poignancy.
Jamesian ghost story aficionados, do not fret! During the question and answer session that followed the screening, an audience member, noting the film's occasional brutality, asked del Toro if this was the final cut that would be released into cinemas, or would it still be subject at the hands of the censors? Del Toro's reply: the violence is not only within context, but underscores fascism's absolute brutality of both the body and soul. And that is one of the primary themes of the film. To cut any of these scenes would ultimately rob the film of its emotional impact. Pan's Labyrinth may have more than a modicum of blood, but it is shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded.
Turning back to fantastic scares of a less depressing nature: We have the indefatigable Doug Jones, who plays the dual roles of the faun and the Pale Man. It is Jones who brings Pan's creatures to life with startling effect. His goat-legged faun moves like an ancient, sinewy tree, uprooted only to fulfil a single purpose. His Pale Man, who inhabits my nightmares of late, will undoubtedly invade yours as well. Aside from enduring the daily application of five hours of make-up, Jones, an American, also had to memorise his dialogue in an archaic form of Spanish. Presumably Jones is still on good terms with del Toro after this abuse; he will be returning to the role of Abe Sapien in 2008 for Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.
Del Toro says that his current film is a companion piece to The Devil's Backbone (2003). Not only are both films set during the onslaught of General Franco's oppression, but there are also thematic similarities such as innocence versus experience, fascism versus free will, and reality versus fantasy; extremes that frequently mirror each other. And these themes often conclude with a choice: those who allow evil to happen, and those who make the decision to fight against it. Such is the case with Pan's Labyrinth's Ofelia, who perhaps makes the most devastating choices of all of del Toro's characters.
In truth, I could ramble on about all of the actors in Pan's Labyrinth for many more pages. Not only were they fantastic, but each of their roles were individually vital to the film: Maribel Verdú as Mercedes, Álex Angulo as the Doctor, and Sebatián Haro as a tight-lipped republican. Del Toro has constructed only important cogs in this machine, and should be commended for his screenwriting and imaginative sense as much as his directing.
The outstanding performance of Pan's Labyrinth's creative team is evident in the film's countless Rackham-inspired frames. From Eugenio Caballero's set designs for the rustic mill and mysteries beyond to Javier Navarrete's haunting lullaby soundtrack. Returning for his fourth collaboration with del Toro is director of photography Guillermo Navarro, who is a crucial component to any del Toro film. This talented and dedicated team have done with 15 million what Hollywood could not accomplish with 150 million.
Like most of del Toro's "horror" films, Pan's Labyrinth is at heart a fantasy, albeit a very dark one. Del Toro commands this signature blend throughout all his films. The other vital element to a del Toro film--and this will sound silly--is love. Listening to the director speak, whether in person or on a DVD commentary, it is clear that this is a knowledgeable and widely read man who genuinely puts all of his heart into each film that he makes. From Hollywood blockbusters like Blade 2 (2002) and Hellboy (2004), to more personal, independent features such as Cronos (1993) and The Devil's Backbone (2001), a del Toro film is always heartfelt.
Del Toro, who is a director known for both the size of his heart and the size of his stomach, dropped over fifty pounds during the making of Pan's Labyrinth. But in the end, this film will only serve to make him bigger. Many reviewers are describing Pan's Labyrinth as del Toro's masterpiece, and if it were, it would certainly be a formidable one. But I believe "masterpiece" is too weighty and inappropriate a word to throw around so easily and, as one première attendee noted, it implies that this is the apex of both del Toro's skill and career. To date, del Toro has made six remarkable films, each being a learning ground and touchstone for the next. The trajectory of his ability as a filmmaker is still on the rise, and his ample waistline leaves him much room to tuck many more of these astounding films under his belt. If this is the man who has designs on Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, I think we should be prepared to be awed by what el Maestro is going to do next. I hope you love Pan's Labyrinth as much as I do. And if you do, go out and tell others to see it!
Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Sergi López,
Ariadna Gil and Maribel Verdú.
Spain/México 2006. Spanish with English subtitles. 119 minutes.
UK release: 24 November 2006, US release: 29 December 2006.
www.panslabyrinth.com / www.panslabyrinth.co.uk
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