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A Dark Spanish Fairy Tale
Pan's Labyrinth (2 DVDs)
Member Name: Mauri
Pan's Labyrinth (2 DVDs)
Date: 16/08/07, updated on 23/06/09 (296 review reads)
Advantages: Great acting and beautifully filmed
Disadvantages: (For some) that it is In Spanish
How refreshing to watch a film that doesn't attempt to mimic the endless dross put out by the Hollywood studios. Guillermo Del Toro's film is a breathtaking attempt to blend realism with fantasy producing an inspiring fairy tale set in war torn Spain in 1944.
Visually distinctive and emotionally challenging the film delivers on all fronts and I have no hesitation in saying that watching this film was one of the most satisfying and emotionally affecting cinematic experiences I can remember in a long time.
This approach of incorporating aspect of magical realism, fairy tale as well as brutal visceral drama into one story is not unique (what is in cinema?) other film maker have attempted the same most notably Terry Gilliam in films like 'The Fisher King' (1991), 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' (1988), 'The Brothers Grimm' (2005) with varying levels of success but very few have managed to produce such emotional intensity and drama without resorting to being emotionally manipulative with their audience.
Pan's Labyrinth is set in 1944 in a Spain still in the death throws of a very violent and damaging civil war. The action takes place in an unspecified rural area which is known to harbour the remaining forces of the left wing resistance militia not yet surrendered to General Franco's authoritarian control in the bulk of the country. A brutal and sadistic fascist captain Vidal is set the task to finally wipe out this pocket of rebellion. Suspecting that the locals are helping the partisans he decided to strictly ration food and medical supplies so that the partisan will be forced to leave the relative safety of the surrounding woods and attack the fascist encampment leaving the rebels vulnerable to the soldiers superior fire power.
In a different thread to the story Vidal has made is heavily pregnant wife and his step- daughter Ofelia join him at his headquarters in an old abandoned mill so that he may witness the birth his son. His wife unwell with the pregnancy is willing to do anything to please him and is keen for her daughter by a previous marriage to accept Vidal as her father. However the young girl is adamant that she will not and as her mother's health weakens she relies on the friendship and care of Mercedes one of the household servants. Ofelia is fascinated by old folk tales and fairies and soon gets on the wrong side of her oppressive stepfather. Arriving at the mill she discovers in the nearby woods a mysterious ruined labyrinth, which soon becomes the focus of her life and leads her into terrible danger. The young girl soon enters a fabulous world of magic and horror.
Del Toro who was previously responsible for writing and directing the intriguing and dark 'The Devil's Backbone' in 2001 manages to elicit some wonderful performances from all his lead actors. Sergi lopez who was unknown to me before this film is truly menacing as the murderous Captain Vidal a man obsessed with his family's legacy and his fascistic political ideals. Every scene in which he features has the potential for unexpected violence and some very shocking moments ensue. Maribel Verdu who I was familiar with from her excellent role as the sexy older woman in the coming of age Mexican road movie 'Y Tu Mamá También' (2001) proved what an adaptable actress she can be. Her sexuality so evident in that earlier film is well hidden as she plays the dowdy servants that becomes Ofelia's only friend. Her character Mercedes is torn between protecting the child and helping the partisans for which she has good reason to do.
Despite the high quality of these performances the star of the film is without doubt the then 13 year-old Ivana Baquero playing Ofelia. Saying she is outstanding is not praise enough. For such a young actress she really manages to convince as the confused and frightened little girl terrified by her stepfather and worried for her mother at the same time as being engulfed as the magical heroine in parallel fantasy world. It is a difficult role to play as her character although still innocent and childlike exemplified by her belief in the fairy tales she reads is also at an age of self discovery and by her circumstances she is brutally introduced to the realities of the adult world. Ivana Baquero is more than up to this challenge.
While the film maybe set in the real life world of last century Spain during a conflict in which horrific acts of barbarism occurred on both sides, the historical context is practically unimportant as the action in the surroundings of the old mill is closeted away from the wider outside world. The mill and the surrounding area are transformed into a dark and foreboding landscape familiar of fables. Other elements of the film, such as the lonely unhappy child destined for greater things, the wicked king/step parent and the heroic servant are also reminiscent of fairy tales we all grew up with.
When analysing why the film is so successful we have to pay due regard to the stunning costumes, make up and special effects that are used to create the fantasy world, some of the monsters in this film are innovative and visually disturbing but of course we are always made aware that whatever horrors the magical world of the labyrinth can throw at us they are nothing compared to the real life horror of the sadistic captain Vidal who shows utter contempt for human life and relishes torturing and demeaning his enemies. While I expect that a fair amount of CGI was used in the film I suspect that this did not reach anywhere near the levels of most Hollywood productions and that more conventional or traditional methods for producing otherworldly characters were used to great effect more convincing even than in many CGI bloated productions. This film is an example that sometimes technology isn't needed and that many films can overly rely on it.
The film carries a 15 certificate but it is visceral in places and some of the torture scenes despite not being too graphic are nonetheless disturbing, don't let the fairytale elements of the stories make you think this is suitable viewing for children even young teenager. Many adult viewers will find some of the scenes disturbing. The underlying themes of the film brutality of war and conflict and the abuse of power and the virtue of self-sacrifice are certainly adult.
I was enthralled watching this film, from the opening scenes as the family are travelling to the mill though the sinister woods to the final shocking conclusion I was gripped. The fact that the version I saw was in Spanish with English subtitled didn't take away from my enjoyment in the least. I look forward with expectation to Del Toro's next film as I believe he is becoming one of the most innovative and thought provoking film directors around.
Cast and Technical (boring bits)
Ivana Baquero ... Ofelia
Sergi López ... Capitán Vidal
Maribel Verdú ... Mercedes
Doug Jones ... Pan/Pale Man
Ariadna Gil ... Carmen Vidal
Álex Angulo ... Dr. Ferreiro
Directed by and written by Guillermo del Toro
Runtime 119min, Certificate UK:15, in Spanish with English subtitles.
'Pan's Labyrinth' (or 'Laberinto del Fauno') can be bought from Play.com for £5.99 when this review was written.
© Mauri 2007
Summary: Disturbing fable of a young girl's search for a magical world