Sunday, May 10, 2009
Pan's Labyrinth (2007)
"Betrayal & Consequence"
N.B. This review was originally posted on e-pinions and the only thing I have added is the rating that did not appear in Bookends.
Readers of any early twentieth century Latin American novel will know the term 'magical realism'. Its main exponents include Marquez and Llorca and it blurs the gap between reality and make believe. The many trailers for 'Pan's Labyrinth' highlight this concept as essential to the film. Indeed, every online review, in an orgy of praise, has the same glorious photo-op: the Pale Man with his fantastic eyes stuck in his palms ogling the little girl, Ofelia. Yet, it's misleading in the sense of how the film must be perceived. Viewers expecting a fabled story of optimism and escapism will be shocked to realize that the fantasy is very minimalist in Guillermo Del Toro's new film and how much it is subverted by lots of tragic consequences.
'Pan's Labyrinth' really centers more on Franco's grip on the Spanish countryside in 1944. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero)is traveling with her pregnant mother, both soon to be in the grip of Captain Vidal, her step-father. He is a high-ranking official and wields power cruelly to everyone he comes in contact with, be it servant or military aide. Ofelia fears for her mother's health but Carmen (Ariadna Gil), effectively separated from her because of the pregnancy, only functions to scowl Ofelia for reading a lot of tall tales. Ofelia sees the scope for her imagination to grow immediately after they arrive at Vidal's manor: the old labyrinth on the grounds prompts her curiosity. She thereafter meets Pan, a faun-like creature, who assigns her three tasks to complete before the next full moon so as to rejoin her other-worldy life as a fabled princess.
The magical realism aspect of the film doesn't take off at this point however. It's beautifully shot but Del Toro regulates it to Ofelia alone. Apart from the infrequent visits from Pan, Ofelia encounters just two unreal instances initially. She retrieves a key, without as much as a tussle, from a large toad that lives in a tree and--in the film's most suspenseful bit--escapes the Pale Man through chalk-drawn doors. Guilermo Navarro's cinematography shines especially in these scenes but it hardly seems Ofelia's need for escapism is pressing enough. The irony of the film is that dire need engulfs just about everyone else and in a real terror-stricken way too. It's just sheer gratuity when Ofelia tells her unborn brother not to hasten his arrival into the world. The imagined world brings her more possibility for harm than the real one. But there are many dreams that demand to be explored here that Del Toro finds himself only touching lightly on them instead of weaving them delicately into being. The film fixates on Ofelia, thus firmly placing the authentic fears of the adults as secondary. This is where 'Pan's Labyrinth' rescinds its claim to greatness. Adults dream too and sometimes even harder than children. Carmen may perpetually scowl Ofelia for her fairy-tales but it's with a hint of jealousy, besides her new life with the powerful captain-albeit short-lived-is her own fairytale. Mercedes, Vidal's main female servant and Doctor Ferreria betray the captain in a bid to be rid of his oppresion over them. The only difference between them all and Ofelia is that they already have an idea of the cynical limitation of dreams.
Del Toro's examination of the war being fought is much more fascinating than Ofelia's dalliances with Pan too. I'm sure this wasn't intentional and while it doesn't subtract from the film's sturdiness, it does question its overall focus. Even though the inner circle of Vidal's domain is downright gripping, no pun intended, there are scenes, while graphic, that seem a little too convenient for the plot's sake. It does explore--within its own confines--the double-edge issue of loyalty and fear nicely though. Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez) rules with fear because it's the way he knows and the only manner with which he himself has been dealt with. In a weird, unexplored way, he inhabits a more fanciful place than Ofelia's imaginaton; his own. It has had more time to shape itself and longer to run its destructive course. Vidal proves to be the most fascinating character here and in need of more introspection than what we're treated to. His demise pointedly shows the consequence of too much daydreaming.
In the end though, the film does tie in neatly the duality of its story as much as it juxtaposes it into separate casings. This makes it more a technical achievement despite of the aggressive emotional praise it has won by critics. Del Toro uses an even hand to balance both worlds but his two main devices fall just short: his parity doesn't fill out with intrigue a-la "Munich" and the magical realism never threatens to wonderfully subvert the film a-la "Moulin Rogue". This point is driven home when Ofelia dies and we are transported to the last images she sees: herself as a princess reunited with her king-father and queen-mother in a grand hall seated high among the creature-folk. We're never sure if in death she's reborn as she imagined all along or if it's just the delirious reaction of a dying human being. 'Pan's Labyrinth' leaves the task of dealing with such a messy, complicated question up to your own vivid and duplicitous imagination.