Thursday, March 29, 2007


PAN’S LABYRINTH (“El Labertinto del fauno,” 2006, Mexico/Spain/USA, Guillermo del Toro)
A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a Princess who dreamed of the human world. One day the Princess escaped. She forgot who she was and where she came from. However, her father, the King, always knew that the Princess' soul would return. And he would wait for her, until he drew his last breath, until the world stopped turning...

A girl on the verge of womanhood experiences two interconnected worlds, the real-world horrors that follow the Spanish civil war and another, subterranean world that may be fantasy, or may be a deeper reality. Is there royalty in her, immortality? Or is she merely mortal, the step-daughter of a vicious fascist officer? If those sound like sentimental fairy tale questions, or their answer a foregone conclusion, you haven’t reckoned with the unsparing vision of Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican director who has lived amidst everyday tragedy, whose own father was the victim of a vicious abduction for ransom. This is the man who turned down the opportunity to direct THE LION, THE WITCH & THE WARDROBE because he “wasn’t interested in the lion resurrecting.” Pity.

The film’s real-world, historical violence (and comparable below-ground terrors) are indeed brutal, and unflinchingly portrayed, but remain far removed from the pain-porn of HOSTEL or its ilk: much closer, in fact, to the brutal settings of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson or even Oscar Wilde, all of which were inspirations. This visionary film earns the right to show us the dark side of human behaviour with its commitment to demonstrating the courage and sacrifice that counter-balance – even when they may not triumph. “opus” writes;
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.
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.

Film-maker Guillermo del Toro identifies himself as a lapsed Catholic, but takes pains to clarify, that’s "not quite the same thing as an atheist." The careful distinction doesn't surprise me - his film gave me one of the most extraordinary glimpses of Eternity I can recall. From the outset I was absolutely caught up in the flow of events, crises, character development, dread, excitement, fear, all that – del Toro is a masterful storyteller. But it wasn't until the final moments that the film sunk much deeper into me, stirring far more powerful and personal emotions - indeed, that it took me to what I would call a "spiritual" place. That's when the tears came, even the quiet sobs - and not just at tragedy, but at triumph mixed with loss. And something more, that would reveal much about me, and far too much about the film.

Sight & Sound critic Mark Kermode dubs this film “the very best film of the year,” and goes so far as to say “This latterday Welles has created a Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema, a masterpiece made entirely on his own terms.” I agree with every word.

It's become an annoying commonplace these days to label films (usually sentimental ones) "redemptive": which invariably means "don't worry, it ends happy." But redemption is a far more exacting, holy, and potent word than that: PAN'S LABYRINTH is the rare film that truly earns so sacred a claim.


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