Next to SON OF MAN, my top movie of 2006. Bowled over. I'm thrilled that it's caught people's attention, continues on at arthouse and multiplex alike. Huge imagination, visually brilliant fantasy (or supernatural?) world juxtaposed against atrocities of the all-too-real Spanish civil war - and ultimately, for me, very close to the heart of the gospel.
A girl on the verge of womanhood experiences two interconnected worlds, the real-world horrors of the last days of the Spanish civil war and another, subterranean world that may be fantasy, or may be a deeper reality. The brutal real-world violence (and comparable below-ground terrors) are far removed from the pain porn of HOSTEL or its ilk: this visionary film earns the right to show us the dark side of human behaviour with its commitment to showing the courage and sacrifice that counter-balance. Film-maker Guillermo del Toro identifies himself as a lapsed Catholic, but takes pains to clarify that that's "not quite the same thing as an atheist," and that distinction doesn't surprise me - this film gave me one of the most extraordinary glimpses of Eternity I can recall. It's become an annoying commonplace these days to label films (usually sentimental ones) "redemptive": which usually just means "don't worry, it ends happy." But redemption is a far more exacting, sacred, and potent word than that: PAN'S LABYRINTH is the rare film that can truly claim that descriptor.
Here are some notes I've gathered from here and there. Of course, best thing is for you to see the movie first, THEN read the notes. But if you need further prompting...
"The most theologically interesting film of the year."
Mark Kermode, Sight & Sound:
"The film of the year.. a Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema, a masterpiece made entirely on his own terms.…
It's an epic, poetic vision in which the grim realities of war are matched and mirrored by a descent into an underworld populated by fearsomely beautiful monsters - a transformative, life-affirming nightmare which is, for my money, the very best film of the year. …
del Toro: "Ofelia is a "princess who forgot who she was and where she came from", who progresses through the labyrinth to emerge as a promise that gives children the chance never to know the name of their father - the fascist. It's a parable, just as The Devil's Backbone was a parable of the Spanish Civil War. I was also trying to uncover a common thread between the "real world" and the "imaginary world" through one of the seminal concerns of fairy tales: choice. It's something that has intrigued me since Cronos, through Hellboy and now to Pan's Labyrinth: the way your choices define you. And I thought it would be great to counterpoint an institutional lack of choice, which is fascism, with the chance to choose, which the girl takes in this movie."
del Toro is a divided soul, a realist attuned to the strange vibrations of the supernatural, a lapsed Catholic ('not quite the same thing as an atheist') with an interest in sacrifice and redemption who turned down the chance to direct The Chronicles of Narnia because he 'wasn't interested in the lion resurrecting'. Crucially, like the artistic refugees from Franco's Spain who first inspired him, the writer-director considers himself an exile from his home country, Mexico, not least because of the 1997 kidnapping of his father, at the height of a vogue for such ransomed abductions. He was released after 72 days. "'I was 33,' el Toro recalls. 'The perfect age to be crucified! I had lived my life believing two things - that pain should not be sought, but, by the same token, it should never be avoided, because there is a lesson in facing adversity. Having gone through that experience, I can attest, in a non-masochistic way, that pain is a great teacher. I don't relish it, but I learn from it. I always say, even as an ex-Catholic, that God sends the letter, but not the dictionary. You need to forge your own dictionary."
'It would be a cliche to say that, because I am a Mexican, I see death in a certain way. But I have seen more than my share of corpses, certainly more than the average First World guy. I worked for months next to a morgue that I had to go through to get to work. I've seen people being shot; I've had guns put to my head; I've seen people burnt alive, stabbed, decapitated ... because Mexico is still a very violent place. So I do think that some of that element in my films comes from a Mexican sensibility.'
"Shooting Pan's Labyrinth was very painful, but it also became a war about me not compromising. I gave back my entire salary in order to get the film made the way I wanted it. I probably should have abandoned it the moment the funding fell through the first time, but I stuck with it for almost two-and-a-half years and refused to back down. It's the first time in the six movies I've directed where I've said: I'm doing this one my way, no matter what. Financiers ran out on me and everyone involved in my career was saying it was the biggest mistake I could make. But I'm very happy with the result. And for me, nothing will be the same again."...
The key inspiration for Pan's Labyrinth was a slim volume published in 1891: Edwin Sidney Hartland's The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry into Fairy Mythology , which "classified fairytales, and their oral origins, and broke down the recurring myths - the myth of choice; the ritual of not eating or drinking while you're in the fairy world; facing very often a figure like the frog. I took all these things and came up with the story of Pan's Labyrinth . The psychosexual interpretation is, of course, much more modern, but I find it very reductive. For me, Pan's Labyrinth is a dark fairytale in the classic sense. The settings of Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and Oscar Wilde were incredibly brutal: Hansel and Gretel were two children abandoned in the woods in the middle of a famine to die of hunger and cold. But you need to know the brutality for the reality of the magic to happen. That's why the war made such a perfect backdrop."
He also wrestled briefly with the ill-fated Exorcist prequel Dominion (aka Exorcist: The Beginning ), the prospect of which appealed to his lapsed-Catholic sensibility. "One of the most important movies in my life, emotionally," he says, "is William Peter Blatty's Twinkle, Twinkle "Killer" Kane [aka The Ninth Configuration ]. It's a movie about redemption through sacrifice and the giving of your blood to save others that speaks to the soul of somebody who believes in a messiah. It deals with the fragility of faith, which is essential to Blatty's work - how faith is almost intangible and yet incredibly strong. And I think it affected me because, although I am no longer a Catholic, I share the belief that there is a state of grace that can be reached not through moral purity but through almost ethical purity - by being yourself and being immune to the world. It's a little ascetic, but it's essentially the thesis of Cronos . In that film the girl who does not mind dying is the truly immortal character. And the character played by Federico Luppi becomes immortal at the moment he decides to die, the moment he says: 'Fuck it, I don't want to kill my granddaughter.' Immortality doesn't mean you live longer; it means you are immune to death. I think that's the same thing that occupies Blatty: faith, the state of grace, immortality, redemption. And these are things that are important for me too." These themes are central to Pan's Labyrinth , the climax of which becomes an epiphany of sacrifice and rebirth.
"opus," in his "twitchfilm" blog entry about the Toronto International Film Festival:
"Guillermo del Toro's much-anticipated dark fable, Pan's Labyrinth, was very well received by an afternoon audience at the Toronto International Film Festival today. The film, which played at the historic Elgin Theater to a packed house, garnered a lengthy standing ovation, amid shouts of "Bravo!", "Encore!", and "Viva Guillermo!"
A&F participant and blogger "opus":
Even the fairy tale segments get pretty dark and spooky... As with the real world violence, I think this just serves to further impress that there is something truly at stake in the heroine's quests; there is evil out there that needs to be vanquished, not glorified and exalted, and I appreciated the film for that. Obviously, I won't spoil the ending, but there is a cost to facing down evil and it is a heavy one.
In this day and age where the term "fairy tale" has become synonymous with cleaned up, whitewashed, Disney-fied "family entertainment", it's easy to forget that many of the great classic fairy tales are, at their core, incredibly dark, twisted, and horrific. The villains are not merely poor, misguided souls who but need a little tolerance or political correctness to turn over a new leaf. Rather, they are vile through and through, not above torturing little children, abandoning them in the wilderness, and planning to serve them for dinner.
In order for there to be hope, there must be something to hope against. And in order for evil to be vanquished -- not merely understood or tolerated, but outright destroyed -- a heavy price must always be paid. It all adds up to a film that successfully draws you into a world of magic, repulses you with brutality and evil, and ends on a lyrical note that is as haunting and beautiful as it is tragic and emotional.
"This is the feeling that was missing from Wardrobe." Not that I think Wardrobe should have been so creepy, but the fantasy world felt REAL, and living, and unpredictable, and strange... a true wonderland. And Aslan's presence in Wardrobe doesn't even register on the scale compared to Pan. I mean, I didn't doubt Pan's presence for a moment, whereas watching Aslan I sat there thinking about how oddly unconvincing his animation was.
"This film would probably have delighted Tolkien and Lewis, who believed that fairy tales—even dark and troubling myths like this one—serve to help us explore spiritual mysteries and apprehend the reality of grace as it glimmers through a glass, or in this case a screen, darkly. Pan's Labyrinth is a parable so profound it's like the gospel masquerading in a mysterious disguise."
"The film speaks to me about the power of myth, and how myth and reality are intertwined. But its clear to me that the "real world" in Del Toro's story is itself a simplification... and I doubt he would deny that. The whole thing is a "fairy tale" that comments on aspects of the real world. I have boxes full of stories that I wrote when I was a kid, and when I read them, they don't make much sense, but I can find *some* things that correlate to things I was struggling with, or convictions I held, or tests I was going through. I'm fascinated with that subject, and I found Pan's Labyrinth to be enthralling. Del Toro is still a kid in a lot of ways... he strikes me as such in his interviews, and his storytelling shows he's much more adept telling fairy tales than he is with portraying a complex "adult" reality. In films where he deals with both, he ends up giving us a child's perspective on reality... big, frightening, and arranged in much simpler categories than a more mature perspective would present."
"For me, it was a strong corrective to Children of Men in so many ways: the violence was never a thrill ride but always a moral issue; the film contains warm and inspiring human characters as well as neutral or dark and destructive ones; the film's warfare is rooted in actual human existence (in this case, the historical battle between Facists and the Reds) involving real issues; it's a multilayered and superbly constructed double narrative with a thematic depth that only grows the more you think about it afterward. And its performances and technical credentials are just as stellar as CoM. In short, if you want to see a thoughtful fantasy film by a hugely talented Mexican filmmaker this year, this is the one to see."