Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Movie Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"

Usually I restrict my movie reviews to 100 words, but in this case I needed to not be limited.

Here’s what I didn’t know about Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) before seeing it:

1) It’s much less fantasy than it is a real-world story with horror elements, and the violence is brutal. This movie is not for the squeamish.

2) It’s entirely in Spanish with subtitles.

Now, neither of these things is a bad thing in and of itself. But the film is being marketed a certain way, and it’s really quite dramatically not the movie it’s being billed as.

Then again, I don’t know how you would sell this movie. Moviefone has it listed as "Drama, Fantasy, Crime and Mystery." (How vague is that?) Rotten Tomatoes calls it "Horror/Suspense." This movie really is that hard to categorize. Do you sell it as a brutal snapshot of post-Civil War Spain? Do you sell it as the story of a lonely little girl and her pregnant mother on an isolated rural military base? Do you sell it as a post-9/11 allegory of military fascism set against the backdrop of a mysterious stone labyrinth whose origins no one seems to know or care about?

Guillermo del Toro’s film is all of these things. It is also an absolute masterpiece, one of the most brilliantly-crafted films I’ve ever seen, and well deserving the twenty-two-minute standing ovation it received at Cannes.

Like The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie that’s best viewed with few preconceptions, the above details aside. Also like The Fountain, it’s a film that is clearly a project of passionate importance to its director. Del Toro weaves fantasy and horror, suspense and war story, fairy tale and psychological thriller expertly, playing each genre against the others for contrast and complement. Every brutal act and every bit of tenderness come through the screen like a surprise, and the appearance of fantasy creatures is a new thing every time it happens. The fact that the main character is a twelve-year-old girl makes the violence nothing short of obscene.

And what a girl she is. Ivana Baquero plays Ofelia with grace and sincerity seldom seen in adult actors. The last time I saw an actor this young create a performance this affecting was Natalie Portman in Leon (The Professional), and we all know how that career is going. Baquero’s performance, if anything, may be more immediate and honest than Portman’s. Ofelia is our lens, our guide through the terror of the real world and the wonder of the fantastic one. Scenes wherein she speaks to her unborn baby brother are particularly powerful.

Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, and Ariadma Gil round out the principals of the “real world” cast, but discussing their roles in the story would be too spoilerish for this blog. Suffice it to say that all three inhabit their characters with epic passion that never seems at odds with the relative intimacy of the film’s setting. Lopez, in particular, creates a character who inspired, shall we say, vehement response from the audience I saw it with.

And ah, the visuals. Obviously, these are what they’re using to try to sell the film: The ancient, withered Faun, his finger bones protruding. The Pale Man, eyeballs in the palms of his hands. Both of these roles are played by Doug Jones (Hellboy’s Abe Sapien), a mime and physical actor of amazing skill, worth the price of admission for his performances alone. Holy cow, his fingers alone are worth it. But the fantastical elements of the film, while completely compelling, are a much less pervasive influence than you’d think; this is Ofelia’s story and the fantasy setting is the exception, not the rule. Like the violence and blood, the fantasy elements are there to reflect and contrast Ofelia, not to distract or mask anything.

Guillermo del Toro has always impressed me as a kind of Mexican Peter Jackson, a resemblance far beyond the husky frame and wild hair and beard. Both share an aesthetic rooted in horror, a love and respect for epic and myth, and that rare combination: ability to create a visual spectacle and skill at coaching actors (are you listening, George Lucas?). Del Toro, who already impressed the hell out of me with Hellboy, has taken a massive stride with this fearful, wonderful film.

So please, read the two pieces of information above before you go see this film. Had I known how violent Pan’s Labyrinth is, I probably would not have gone to see it. However, that would have been a terrible, terrible mistake.

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