Pan’s Labyrinth (Picturehouse, R)

film_labyrinth_smWhile the action is fantastical, the characters are not one-dimensional fairy tale archetypes. Ofelia is a real child, alternating between the poles of kindness and selfishness of childhood. While ingenious at solving Pan's tasks, she makes mistakes and succumbs to simple, childish whims that ultimately almost cost her her life.

 

 

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Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro has produced another brilliant, dark, and moving fantasy with Pan's Labyrinth. Innocent Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), move to the countryside to be with her new husband, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Military commander Vidal is systematically and brutally trying to stamp out rural republican opponents of Franco's fascist government. The Captain has little time for Ofelia or his wife but is obsessed with his unborn son.

To cope with the insanity around her and to make sense of her new father's brutality and her mother's looming mortality (it is not an easy pregnancy), Ofelia retreats into a fantasy world. There she meets the capricious and menacing faun Pan guarding a gateway to a magical world, a world where, Pan tells Ofelia, she is really a princess, and her true parents the king and queen desperately want her back. To enter this world, she simply needs to complete three harrowing tasks, all the while slipping back and forth between her world and Pan's.

The tense action keeps the audience engaged throughout. As the republican rebels and their sympathizers in the Captain's household fight to stay alive and thwart the Captain's repressive reign, Ofelia struggles to complete Pan's tasks that pit her against dangerous, fantastical creatures. All the while, the Captain and Ofelia fight a war of wills over the control and treatment of her mother and the unborn child.

While the action is fantastical, the characters are not one-dimensional fairy tale archetypes. Ofelia is a real child, alternating between the poles of kindness and selfishness of childhood. While ingenious at solving Pan's tasks, she makes mistakes and succumbs to simple, childish whims that ultimately almost cost her her life. With mother, Carmen, the very form of the damsel in distress (and pregnant to boot!), the audience cannot help but think that she has willfully chosen to ignore her husband's evil, hoping, praying that he could be a better man. Even the Captain, unquestionably brutal and evil as he is, is not a simple as he seems. Throughout the film he works to fix the broken watch that was the only gift from his own, harsh military father, a famous general. Every time the Captain winds the mainspring and grinds the interlocking gears, we can imagine the General grinding into his young son's mind his warped vision of manhood and manly duty. Finally, despite being Ofelia's only "friend," the mythical beast Pan inspires almost as much dread as the creatures against which Ofelia is pitted in her tasks. We cannot shake the uneasy feeling that if Ofelia manages to survive and complete her three tasks, she will be aiding Pan in some enterprise as evil as her father's, and not in opening a gateway to some magical kingdom.

Del Toro is a very specific filmmaker and fans will see similarities to his other films. The closest comparison is his fantastic 2001 ghost story, The Devil's Backbone, which St. Louisans could have caught at the 2001 St. Louis International Film Festival, and is now on DVD. It is a similar tale of children and their caretakers trying to navigate the brutal end of the Spanish Civil War. No filmmaker working today, not even Tim Burton, can so seamlessly integrate the fantastical and the real, using the allegory and the fantasy to reveal and drive the emotions of the characters and the plot. One word of warning: unlike the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland, which was aimed at children, the "R" rating for this film is well-deserved. The Captain beats one man to death with a rifle butt, and tortures several others; it is unquestionably an adult tale.

While there are finally many films worthy of your time, surrender yourself for two hours to Del Toro's fantastical vision and journey with young Ofelia into Pan's Labyrinth. | Joe Hodes

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