Thursday, March 17, 2011

del Toro Time: Pan's Labyrinth

El Laberinto del Fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro)

Fairy tales and other stories about the fantastic have frequently been used throughout human history to better understand the way the world functions. The natural laws of physics, astronomy, human behaviour and traditions, morality lessons, all these and more have been given the some sort of fairy or sci-fi treatment. Such tactics are still employed till this day when explaining certain things to children. Before they have a better grasp on the events that shape their universe, we often help them relate to the world through stories. Such is the way little Ofelia (Ivana Baquero)  sees the trees, bugs and shadows of the Spanish countryside in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. The story is set in 1944, and young Ofelia is living under the auspices of her sick and pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her stepfather, the terrifyingly intimidating Vidal (Sergi López), Captain for the Spanish army under the fascist government, which was in the midst of a civil war with rebels. 

The stakes are set from the outset. The audience quickly learns that Carmen is not well and is more 'fighting’ through her pregnancy than ‘living’ through it normally. Ofelia is a great admirer of books, which inspire her imagination, particularly when sharing bedtime stories with her un-born brother before her mother falls asleep. The chief house keeper is a woman named Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), who, as a staunch supporter of the rebels but living and working under the roof of a military representative of the fascist government, must offer what assistance she can to her comrades in arms in great haste and secrecy. During a brief stop on the ride up the mountain to Vidal’s house, Ofelia makes the acquaintance of what she believes to be a fairy under the guise of a stick bug. Later that night, the insect reveals its true form, a bald fairy, and convinces Ofelia to follow her into the rock labyrinth just outside the girl’s house. Once there, an ancient faun, convinced that Ofelia is the long lost princess of the underworld, explains to the child that in order to prove her royalty and immortality, she must accomplish three strange tasks before returning to her true home. Ofelia is confused, but accepts the challenge, believing that she may very well be a princess. At the very least, it would help her escape Captain Vidal.

Pan’s Labyrinth is considered by many to be del Toro’s masterwork, and after watching the film again for the first time in a few years, it becomes difficult to argue otherwise. All the familiar themes and rich character-driven emotions from his other works are present, but this time the director must work with a veritable labyrinthine tale, juggling two side-by-side plots which remain interconnected throughout, continuously bridging the gap between Ofelia’s desires and the venues for her to escape her nefarious stepfather. Two worlds, totally different, that must also be tightly linked, much like how old fantastical stories and fairy tales function, as we previously discussed. In other words, del Toro is creating and sharing two plotlines at once and one overarching journey, the overall plot being Ofelia’s journey, the two subplots being the events of the Spanish Civil war (which remain connected to Ofelia’s universe) and the plot which has the underworld’s faun representative desire for his princess’ long awaited return.  Weaving these threads at once without getting tangled up nor being too ham-fisted could not have been an easy task, but del Toro proves to be an excellent storyteller in Pan’s Labyrinth. With his Hellboy films, he could rely on the help of Mike Mignola. Both were very well made and entertaining, but Pan’s Labyrinth has an additional richness and texture to its story that ensures its ranking a cut above the rest of the entries in del Toro’s filmography. Every task Ofelia is required to complete mirrors that which transpires in the ordinary human world. Obtaining a special key underneath an old tree where a giant toad lives is in sync with the singular key Captain Vidal must keep in order to withhold the ration supplies in the storage barn. Settling a little tree root in the shape of a baby (it dreams to become a man) in a bowl of milk underneath her mother’s bed happens in conjunction with Carmen’s struggle with her pregnancy. Ofelia ss given a lively dress by her mother and told that wearing it would make her look just like a princess, all the while the faun outside her house keeps reiterating that Ofelia is the long lost princess of the underworld. There are plenty of story beats that build on and preserve the connectivity of the two plots. Ofelia, still very young, still sees the world through a child’s eye, which lends a believability to her magical interpretations of everything that happens around her. Had the central character been older, the film would not have been blessed with a similar effectiveness, but as it stands, it is easier for the viewer to accept that Ofelia is, in her mind perhaps, going through this adventure which is unbelievable to us adults.

Of all the films helmed by del Toro, this is arguably his best looking one. The level of detail invested in the sets, the creature costumes and even some of the computer generated effects is impressive to say the least. The weakest effects shots are those that bring the giant toad to life. Back in the day and this past week while re-watching the movie, I was reminded how the toad is, sadly, the most artificial looking creation in the film, but his lack of believability is made up for a little bit with an excellent death (make that a great death). The faun, on the other hand, is still one of the neatest looking monsters to be found in quite some time. The only other significant monster the reviewer can conjure up from memory that could rival the faun is Hellboy II’s tree god, which is another del Toro project. Go figure. One third man, one third goat and one third tree, the faun is both frightening and fascinating. Doug Jones once again slips into costume as the faun and as a pale old man without eyes on his face who once was fat but after being deprived of food for years, is now thin with flabby skin hanging from all over. As this marathon moves along, Doug Jones’ name is frequently appearing in the reviews, for good reason! My appreciation for physical acting, that is, the sort of acting required when one is hiding behind heavy masks and costumes, has grown exponentially after three consecutive films in which Jones played major roles. The filmmakers can get away with a lot because of the story’s fantastic nature and inhabitants. Colours schemes, special affects and cinematography can all be exaggerated. Some visuals are indeed exaggerated, but not all, and even the ones that are look terrific for the most part because, once again, it all functions properly for the purpose of this tale. 

Following Doug Jones, the scene stealer is Sergi López as Captain Vidal. The iciness he brings to the role is truly chilling. The character never bats an eye, but there is little secret that the devil lies underneath his skin. It therefore becomes a matter of time before Vidal does something incredible. It is always sudden, and more importantly, always quick. The tension rises and rises some more before he commits he heinous acts, making López’s scenes that much more powerful. Young Ivana Banquero faire quite well as Ofelia. Her awe in front of the wild beings that present themselves is believable, as is her increasing acceptance that she must return to the underworld. It is often written how child actors spoil films, yet Miss Banquero captures the right tones and levels of amazement to keep the character anchored in some kind of believability despite it all.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a film than can stay firmly planted in someone’s mind for some time. Its story is sad, but its characters ever hopeful. Not everyone makes it through, but that is part of what makes stories such as these memorable. Death is always a constant presence, hovering above our heads and above the heads of characters in fairy tales. That is partly why they have an impact, why we as children can relate to them. But with the threat of death comes the appreciation of life and a persistence of hope. Hope does not always land in one’s lap, but, to paraphrase a line from the film, it is there for those who know where to look for it.

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