Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pan's Labyrinth

What makes Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth so powerful is that it brings together to different sets of material, which are completely incompatible, yet insists on being true to both until the very end. On one hand there are fauns and faeries, on the other a sadistic fascist captain who will brutally murder with only the flimsiest of excuses. The nature of these two worlds is probably the scariest part of the film, for both contain incredible dangers that could get 11-year-old heroine Ofelia killed.

The faun seems at times both good and evil, yet what he really offers Ofelia is an opportunity to choose between the two. Her inability to follow his warnings almost get her killed by one of the most frightening, albeit initially ridiculous, monsters to grace any screen I’ve seen. And her refusal to accede to the faun’s requests in the end is her way of finding redemption when given a second chance.

But she is likewise tested in the real world. Finding out that the captain’s servant has been aiding the anti-Franco rebels, Ofelia refuses to divulge the information because she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her. The movie seems to be about the choices that Ofelia must make, that she must learn to be true to herself, even in the face of grave danger.

Though Ofelia is the only person who can see the faun or faeries, there is evidence to convince one that they are real enough. For one, the magical chalk that she uses to create doorways helps her escape a room that was guarded, something unlikely to have occurred otherwise. The mandrake root provided by the faun to help her mother seems to have positive results, and its discarding has the opposite.

I am at a loss in trying to explain exactly how this movie works, about what makes it so good. The visuals are stunning, like something out of a real nightmare, something attempted by the makers of The Cell, though this time with resounding success. Del Toro’s mastery is in how he is able to present these two vastly different worlds side-by-side, make it work, and make the result more than the sum of its parts.

What Tim O’Brien said is true. Stories can save us. Lover of stories and faerie tales, Ofelia creates a story for herself that becomes real, helps her survive the horrors of her surroundings, and in the end becomes real enough to save her. The conclusion can be interpreted in two separate ways, yet I choose to believe that she was saved. The film moved me, changed me, and I don’t think I will forget this feeling for a long time.


Brendan Moody said...

I don't get Pan's Labyrinth. I watched it. I thought, "This movie has a stunning visual imagination." It ended. I had no real intellectual or emotional response. I thought, "Well, at least it had a stunning visual imagination."

There were other things I liked. Ivana Baquero was an engaging enough lead, and Maribel Verdú gives a great performance based on rather thin material. The direction is lush. I enjoyed the fairy tale scenes for what they were.

I think my problem with the movie was that the two worlds between which it cut were so morally simplistic that I couldn't engage with either of them. I don't think fascist Spain and the fairy tale world are completely incompatible- they share the flat morality and characterization of didactic literature. To put it bluntly, the Spanish characters were so one-dimensionally melodramatic that I struggled to care about them even as they lived and died. I don't doubt that there may occasionally be people in the world who are as vile as Captain Vidal or as graciously noble as Mercedes, but that doesn't make them dramatically interesting to me.

I always feel a little weird criticizing this movie. It's so widely adored by perceptive people like yourself that I wonder just what I've missed. Maybe I'll see it again some time and see how I feel on rewatching.

I wonder if you've seen Roger Ebert's review. His opening paragraph focuses on similar points to your own:


Jon Polk said...

I did read Ebert's review the night I watched the film, and wrote this post a day later. I'm sure the review affected the way I see the film, but I didn't realize how some of those phrasings stuck with me. It is a little embarrassing.

I don't disagree with your assessment of the one-dimensional characterization, but in my mind Pan's Labyrinth is like the fairy tales of which Ofelia is so fond. Those stories have one-dimensional characters as well, but they still can be enjoyable and informative. Since del Toro wasn't striving for anything approaching realism, it didn't bother me the way it did you.

I didn't feel that Ofelia was one-dimensional, however. I thought Baquero gave a nuanced performance, in which I felt like there was so much going on beneath the surface that I didn't necessarily need to see it all to feel it all. (This is probably a side effect of my recent but intense focus on the unspoken in drama.)