Wednesday, 7 November 2007

review: pan's labyrinth (guillermo del toro, 2006)


I have always been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro. From his innovative take on the vampire genre with Cronos (1993), to possibly the best of recent years' glut of superhero films, Hellboy (2004), through the masterful arthouse-Gothic trappings of The Devil's Backbone (2001), he has developed a unique voice, bridging the mainstream with the alternative, and giving new life to fantasy and horror genre elements - though the less said about Blade II (2002) the better. Having said that, there has always been the sense that Del Toro had not achieved his full potential, that there was a truly great film lurking within him that he had not yet managed to create. A remarkable achievement on all levels, one of the best films of last year and an instant classic, Pan's Labyrinth is that film.

Drawing as much inspiration from
The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973) as from Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986), Pan's Labyrinth has one foot firmly within the traditions each of the two embodies. It is a film about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and about General Franco's regime (personified here in the self-hating, patriarchal figure of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who becomes an almost monstrous avatar of authority, repression and tradition). It is also, and perhaps more importantly, a film about myth, imagination and their capacity to offer - not an escape, but a transcendence of the mundane, an untouchable imaginative space where the insurmountable problems of life (and there are plenty in Pan's Labyrinth) can reach a resolution and provide some sort of redemption for the soul. It is in this redemption that myth comes to be seen as the last unconquerable refuge of the individual, unreachable and always above tyranny and oppression, a place where the individual of moral and personal integrity can achieve some form of, at least internal, apotheosis.

Pan's Labyrinth also draws heavily from the literary and cinematic tradition of the fantasy as a coming-of-age narrative, typically of a female protagonist (Kira Cochrane wrote an excellent piece examining the film from this angle and within this tradition, here). Ofelia (played excellently by Ivana Baquero) is the centre of the film, which fundamentally follows the arc of her struggles to develop as an individual, by finding a space of her own within a rigid, patriarchal order in which she and her mother are little more than appendages to Captain Vidal, her stepfather.

In exploring these themes, Del Toro mirrors and parallels events in the "real" world in a fairy-tale narrative replete with tropic imagery and classical mythological resonances. These sequences see Del Toro unleashing his imagination to an extent unseen in his previous films. These sequences possess a power and an intensity rare in fantasy - Del Toro is unafraid to indulge in the wondrous flights of magic his story demands, but neither does he shy away from the darkness, horrific violence and underlying terror that permeate both the material and the fairy-tale realms.

The richness of Pan's Labyrinth's vision, its sensitivity towards its characters, its affecting and profound understanding of the intertwined relationships of fantasy, imagination and experience, its visceral impact, and its technical and cinematic excellence, all mark it out as one of the finest masterpieces of the fantasy genre, and of modern cinema. It is a remarkable achievement - a film that, like Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006), erases the boundary between commercial genre cinema and the arthouse, exhibiting a uniquely personal, powerful vision on the scale of canvas usually reserved for studio-approved blockbusters, while simultaneously utilizing and transcending those same blockbusters' tropes. Del Toro has confirmed himself an auteur, and this is his masterpiece.

4 comments:

bobblog said...

again another pleasure to read .....

But be honest - didn't you think that there should be more bits based in the 'labyrinth' world. The best scene is the dining room task cause it feels complete whereas total running time in the labyrinth equals a grand total of ten minutes.

I found this disappointing. I wanted more puppets, more animation more labyrinth scenes. Instead a got a load of reality.

Also the rnglish translation of the title itself is incorrect. Pan in mythology is regarded as a trickster, a joker, a parankster - which totally devoid here.

Saying that compared to the del toro films I have seen, yes this is his stand out though.

magnum said...

Bob - you have to keep in mind that DelToro's budget probably amounted to the budget reserved for the coffee and cake in Spiderman 3... which is, of course, a shame since Del Toro's imagination is rare thing (even Blade 2 had some pretty neat ideas and moments).

Noel Tanti said...

i really love the manner in which fantasy intrudes in del toro's film... it is a world for everyone to see but which only a select few are actually aware of... a hidden world as opposed to an alternate one...

as regards the title, yes, that's an obscenity... the faun has nothing whatsoever to do with Pan...

Daniel Vella said...

I think there's quite a bit more than ten minutes of fantasy scenes...

Having said that, as Noel pointed out, the genius of the film is in the interplay between the two worlds - the fantasy realm was constantly present and felt within the real world, and vice-versa. The relationship between fantasy and reality was executed better, and to more powerful effect, here than in any other film I can think of.

You're completely right about the title though.