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Nowhere to go in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) September 3, 2007

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Mexican.
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Originally published in Digital Buryong on April 28, 2007

Original Title: El laberinto del fauno
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu

What sets Pan’s Labyrinth apart from its contemporaries, primarily those films made last year, is Guillermo del Toro’s conviction to his idea, without compromising his audience. He’s been around in the business for quite a long time, with two successful Hollywood films (Hellboy, Blade II) under his belt and a Civil War epic (The Devil’s Backbone) produced by the campy Pedro Almodovar. Incidentally, he was asked to direct The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, a film similar to Pan’s Labyrinth theme, but he turned down the offer to focus on the latter. Phew. That’s conviction.

When a writer or director comes up with an idea, he would understandably be indulgent in his work. The world of his baby — yeah, that’s what he call his masterwork — is all he thinks about everytime. He is wildly devoted to see his work viewed by millions of people (and receiving awards, of course). In this highly inspired tale however, del Toro manages to steer away from excessive indulgence to produce a film worthy of its accolades. Pan’s Labyrinth is beautiful, though it might (and it would) bore your 10-year old Spongebob-addict nephew when you bring him with you expecting a Sukob flick.

Set in post Civil War Spain after Franco’s dictatorship, its production values are highly commendable. The editing is seamless. The transition between scenes works so well I thought I’m seeing Russian Ark. The imagery appeals to anyone’s childhood apprehensions, although generally its photography looks limited.

The setting may look grand in scale but actually, it isn’t. The parallelism of Ofelia’s imagination to Captain Vidal’s attempt to liquidate Republican rebels serves as an effective backbone to its richly imagined story, a cup of war realism and mythological characters at the same time. It works effectively proving the power of imagination against evil. I find the early part of the narrative boring, which is excusable, since this is how historical plot goes. Do you expect to get thrilled about gunshots and blood and touches of fascism in real life? In flicks, of course. But this film is deadly serious. It redeems itself after a while, with Ofelia’s journey to fulfill her mission, armed with a belief that she was indeed the lost princess of the underworld resurrected. She follows what the faun tells her to do to rejoin her family. Wonderful memories of childhood experiences fill my head; actually, a deep sense of nostalgia.

How beautiful it is to be a child! Playing with fairies, running away from monsters and evil spirits, getting trapped in a house where everything moves incessantly, and engaging in a ghost hunt are part of every kid’s innocent fantasies. There is a feeling that every day is a challenge to uncover this superficiality overflowing from their gifted minds. Damn, that bat I saw when I’m on my sixth grade scares me up to now!

Pan’s Labyrinth reminds us that innocence is a virtue we lost once we step into the real world, as they refer to it as such. If I may interject a very personal note, my real world began when I got circumcised. As much as I would want to elaborate, there’s simply not much to say.

The actors are fine, not the type to topple a Meryl Streep or knot Dakota Fanning’s guts, but I assume del Toro wants it that way. The subtlety of Ofelia, Captain Vidal, and Mercedes works well with the film’s humble intentions.

Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is given a significant amount of attention; you can already guess from the first fifteen minutes that she is a spy. Verdu, the cancer-stricken woman lustily desired by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna in Y Tu Mama Tambien, may be a bit distracting in some parts (being cast against her stereotype roles) but all throughout I realized she did very well, even graceful. Her face embodies a history of sadness with gestures so firmly observed, I almost forgot her steaminess in Cuaron’s film.

It is safe to say that Pan’s Labyrinth is not any kid’s typical fairy tale story, whose “and they lived happily ever after” encourages wrongful hopes toward views of life. After all, Walt Disney can be seen more as an evil perpetrator than a saintly uncle. The film achieves realism without losing the imagination’s unyielding ability to bear this world of infamy. Brilliantly conceived, Pan’s Labyrinth alludes to Victor Erice’s opus Spirit of the Beehive, and to say an opus is an understatement. Well that’s more than enough.

A devoted cinephile cannot discount the bursting energy, quite recently, of Mexican filmmakers in the mainstream industry. In fact, 2006 saw an influx of three of their widely acclaimed works in Hollywood, Children of Men (Cuaron), Babel (Iñarritu), and Pan’s Labyrinth. All received nods from this year’s overrated Oscars. If I may insert a personal note: I regard Amores Perros as an enduring classic from the first time my palms got sweaty inside the UP Film Center. My friend Gayle and I were speechless and stoned like a monument; we only started to talk and share our sentiments after 10 minutes. Not to mention bewilderment.

One word to desribe these Mexicans: really (enunciated nasally) spicy. They make me feel like craving for a plate of sisig. With egg, of course.

Ofelia dies in the end but she manages to return to her kingdom. Not a bad closure but I felt a liitle disappointed. (I wished it was longer and presented Ofelia’s journey like it’s really a difficult labyrinth to escape from. Well that’s my indulgence typing those words. On a sidenote, the labyrinth scene reminded me of the snowy, thrilling maze chase in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial adaptation of The Shining.)

Any idea what separates a great film from a mediocre?

Imagination that sends you to outer space or under world; astonished, you ask yourself, “Shall I go back?” No time to think, you just continue flying. * * * *

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