Saturday, November 25, 2006

Review - Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)

Her father is dead, her pregnant mother has moved in with a sadistic fascist, and the country around her is gripped by violence - no wonder Ofelia (Ivana Banquero) feels the need to flee her surroundings and escape to a world of fairies and magic. She’s the heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, the new film by Guillermo del Toro which juxtaposes the harsh realities of warfare with a story of fantasy and myth. It’s a daring, almost foolhardy blend of styles and genres - a blend which could have clashed horribly - but del Toro weaves his remarkable story together like it’s the most natural thing in the world, and it has resulted in an utterly intoxicating experience which is impossible to resist.

The story of Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in 1944, but it opens with a brief “once upon a time”-style prologue. Hundreds of years ago, in a mystical ancient world which exists below the surface of our own, a princess disappeared into the world of humans and never came back. Her devastated father opened up a number of portals in the hope that her soul would one day return - and now, in the shape of Ofelia, perhaps it has. Ofelia is the young girl whom we first meet on the way to her new home. Her weak, heavily pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) is starting a new life with Vidal (Sergi López), a Capitán in Franco’s army, but he’s a cruel stepfather. When he and Ofelia first meet she makes the mistake of offering her left hand to shake, and Vidal almost crushes it in his vice-like grip. He has no feelings towards either Ofelia or his new wife; he simply wants the son which she is carrying in her womb.

Vidal has set up his base in the Spanish countryside to weed out the few rebel groups who still resist the fascist regime. The main fighting of The Spanish Civil War has been over for some time, but frequent skirmishes still take place in the nearby mountains and the guerrilla fighters also have a pair of collaborators who are working right under Vidal’s nose - his seemingly loyal doctor (Álex Angulo) and housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). It’s Mercedes who befriends the frightened and lonely Ofelia and tells her about the mysterious labyrinth which stands at the back of the house; and it’s at the centre of this labyrinth where Ofelia meets the faun (Doug Jones), a creature who informs her of her destiny and explains the dangerous tasks she must perform in order to reclaim her position in the kingdom.

Guillermo del Toro has spent the last few years trying to impose his dark sensibility on Hollywood genre films, with his patchy Blade II and Hellboy, but in trying to adhere to a mainstream code he hasn’t come close to matching his 2001 benchmark The Devil’s Backbone. Pan’s Labyrinth acts a kind of sister piece to that picture, once again setting a supernatural tale against the backdrop of Spanish conflict; but this is a much more fully realised film, a picture which finds the director using every one of his filmmaking skills to maximum capacity, and his story grips from the start. The opening sequence sees a small insect-like creature following Ofelia as she explores her new surroundings, and when he appears in her bedroom one night he takes on a human form right in front of her eyes. It’s a genuinely magical moment.

Del Toro fills scene after scene with startlingly imaginative moments like this, and he pitches each one at higher level than the last. This effort to top himself with every step of his picture could have led to him going too far and taking Pan’s Labyrinth over the edge, but he shows unerring judgement throughout, and his approach simply sees the film exert an increasing power over the viewer as the stakes for Ofelia grow inexorably higher. It’s not just his brilliant handling of his fictional world which impresses either, del Toro also paints a plausible picture of Ofelia’s unhappy life in the real world. Grounded by Sergi López’s vicious and compelling performance, del Toro doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of 1940’s Spain and much of this half of the film is extraordinarily violent. In fact, perhaps some of the violent acts here are a little too extreme - one of the earliest scenes in the film bears comparison to Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible - and the explicitness of these incidents has a slightly jarring effect. When del Toro shows such skill in managing the film’s tone elsewhere, moments like this stand out badly.

That’s a minor quibble though, and there’s too much pleasure to be had in Pan’s Labyrinth to linger on such small deficiencies. Chief among its many assets is the glorious central performance from 11 year-old Ivana Banquero whose sensitive, guileless display carries the film. She’s wonderfully natural and the audience really starts to care for her welfare as various external dangers begin closing in around her. She interacts brilliantly with her adult co-stars - including the excellent Verdú - but the most compelling relationship in the film occurs between Banquero and Doug Jones; the American actor who proves to be such a magnetic presence as the faun who acts as Ofelia’s guide. Sometimes a performance can get lost when actors are required to perform under a ton of makeup, but Jones exudes an air of calm authority as well as an enigmatic sense of menace. He also excels in his other role, as the mysterious Pale Man with whom Ofelia has a terrifying encounter. With eyeballs in the palms of his hands and the skin hanging loosely from his bones, the Pale Man is one of the most extraordinary creations I’ve seen in recent cinema, and the sequence containing him is a masterpiece of slow-burning tension.

The whole of Pan’s Labyrinth is beautifully designed. Del Toro draws inspiration from Borges and Goya, as well as stealing motifs from the likes of Alice in Wonderland alongside traditional fairytales, to create an incredibly rich milieu which is brought to life through masterful visual effects and production design. The spectacular effects never overwhelm the story though; they’re sparingly used and merely act as a means for del Toro to tell his tale in the most effective way. The director also places heavy emphasis on the uterine symbolism and maternal theme which runs throughout the picture; and while the political context and allegory doesn’t match up to that offered by The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro compensates with a more involving and emotionally affecting story.

As Pan’s Labyrinth moves into its latter stages del Toro allows his real and imagined worlds to bleed into one another (literally), and the director creates an almost unbearable tension during the final act as he builds to a devastating climax. This is the work of a filmmaker who has reached a new level of maturity in his work, a filmmaker who is pushing his abilities to the limit, and his picture is overflowing with creativity and passion. Pan’s Labyrinth is a stunning fantasy film, a powerful slice of civil war drama, and a compelling depiction of the resilience of the human spirit, all incorporated into one completely satisfying whole. Above all, and perhaps most movingly, it’s a celebration of imagination and escapism; and as Ofelia dreams herself away from the pain of her everyday life, we desperately long for her to dream herself to a better, safer realm. The world can be a terribly cruel place, never more so than when seen through the eyes of a child.