Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro ("Hellboy") has written and directed a beautiful, horrible, and sad tale of faery's last remnant reaching out to our world. In this case, "our world" is the Facist Spain of 1945, where oppression and murder of the diehard resistance members goes on unnoticed due to the War consuming the rest of Europe. Ivana Baquero, as the heroine Ofelia, plays a nine-year old girl whose mother has remarried after her father's death in the Civil War. Her stepfather (Sergi Lopez as "Captain Vidal") assigned to anti-resistance duty in a remote region dotted with Celtic runestones and the ruinous labyrinth of the title. She and her pregnant mother (Adriana Gil) are on their way to join the Captain at his post, so that his wife can be nearby when his son is born. That he insists on their coming to his remote and rustic posting despite his wife's perilous pregnancy, and fumes when they are a few minutes late due to her having been taken carsick, is one of the keys to his character, although not the only one. Vidal is a frightening, complex character: a martinet who polishes his own boots; a man who cherishes his father's broken watch while denying the heroic story that goes with it; a brave and reasonably competent soldier who is also a brutal and vicious sadist.

During the stop along the road, Ofelia puts the fallen eye of a stone carving back into place, which arouses an eerie stick-insect, which she identifies as a "fairy," which follows her to her new home. That night, the creature, now in proper fairy form, leads her to the center of the ancient labyrinth, where she discovers a stairs going down to "the Underworld," and finds the faun (Doug Jones) awaiting her. The faun tells her that she may be the spirit of the Princess of the Underworld, and that, if she passes three tests she will be restored to her throne.

Even though the faun is creepy and what can be seen of the Underworld below the labyrinth is not very cheerful, Ofelia, who is a fan of faery stories, agrees. After all, it can hardly be worse than the world she inhabits now. Even knowing what sort of man Vidal is, his sudden violence can be shocking and upsetting. The particular viciousness of civil war shows up in the casual way wounded enemies are put to death on the battlefield, and Vidal's enthusiasm for torturing prisoners should be cautionary.

Ofelia goes to the tasks she is set with courage and determination--indeed, almost too much courage. She is not fearful enough of the Pale Man, a dreadful ogre who devours two of her fairy companions through her lack of care (or perhaps she was beguiled by a spell, as happens in fairy tales sometimes--), and the fairies withdraw their favor, which seems to leave Ofelia alone to face her mother's failing health, her stepfather's increasing violence, and the general deterioration of things around her.

The story plays out to a tragic ending, which may have a bittersweet lining or may just be the last delirium of a dying brain, ala "Brazil."

It is a wonderful movie, beautifully shot with restrained use of effects. It is also harsh, bitter, and sad, and a fairy tale not for young children.

Spoilers follow for those who want the psychological breakdown:

As with many such movies, it is at first ambivalent whether the magic is really occurring, or only happening in Ofelia's mind. The events are very carefully crafted in this way:
her first challenge is to defeat a monsterous toad lairing in the roots of a great fig tree that is killing the tree. It is not a far stretch to define the fig tree as Ofelia's dying mother, and the toad the life-draining fetus growing in her mother's womb--the cthonian grotto Ofelia crawls into for the confrontation. The Pale Man sits at the head of a table groaning with food she is forbidden to touch, just as Captain Vidal presides over a banquet for the local Facists while the other residents are on short rations. However, we do see what eventually becomes veritable magic: her mother radicaly improves under the influence of the fairies' root magic and suffers when it is withdrawn; Ofelia escapes from a lcoked room by drawing a doorway with chalk; and the very stones of the labyrinth hide her from Vidal, although Vidal is unable to perceive the faun when in his presence.

More to come--.
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