February 11, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

panslabyrinthMexican director Guillermo Del Toro has only recently appeared on my radar. I missed the giant bug movie Mimic (1997), never got around to seeing his sequel Blade II (2002), and I only recently saw his comic-book adaptation Hellboy (2004) on cable TV. Only after reading rave reviews for Pan's Labyrinth this winter, alongside the critical campaigning of movie writers, begging audiences to take notice of Del Toro's vision, have I noticed this burly, bearded, bespectacled director.

Labyrinth is a stunning and fresh fantasy. While this film has a preteen protagonist, and several magical creatures, the film is strictly for adults. Two closely tied plots intertwine: Ofelia and her pregnant mother move into a army outpost in the Spanish mountains, to live with her new stepfather, the Captain. The Captain is a brutal sadist charged with cleaning out the mountains of the last pockets of armed resistance, while his civilian staff are supporting the guerillas right under his nose, inevitably to be caught. The Captain is using Ofelia's mother to bear him a male heir, and he only tolerates Ofelia and her mother to that end.

Meanwhile, a sly faun lures Ofelia into a fantastical and mysterious underworld. If she can complete three dangerous tasks, she will prove her right to return to her kingdom where she can live forever, but does she care too much about the fate of her mother and unborn brother to cut ties with our world? Del Toro cleverly juxtaposes the gothic wonders of this underworld with the unspeakable horror of post-war Spain. How can we call their world a fiction when the horrors of her daily life are equally unreal?

I highly recommend this movie to lovers of myth and fantasy, with the warning that Del Toro does not flinch from graphic brutal (but not gratuitous or fetishistic) violence (beatings, shootings, stabbings). I feel the violence did not need to be so explicit in order to be effective, but I understand why it's included. I would give this movie an A, but I can't recommend a movie so violent to everyone, so it's an A minus instead.

NOTE: In preparation for seeing El Laberinto del Fauno this weekend, I rented his 2001 ghost story El Espinazo del diablo (The Devil's Backbone) which is also an excellent and creepy ghost story for adults. Watch it with the lights off and the sound up. (Somerville Theater)