El Laberinto Del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) Review
There’s a very easy way to tell if you should go and see Pan’s Labyrinth: if you’re a fan of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s more intimate Spanish-language films (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone), then see this immediately, and see it as many times as you can in the cinema. If, however, you prefer his somewhat compromised Hollywood work (Mimic, Blade 2, Hellboy), then you may consider this film too arty for your tastes – but I would urge you to see it anyway, as we need more films like this in cinema, and directors pursuing their artistic vision to such success should always be encouraged, not least as a reminder to generations raised on cinema as product that it is also, as the French would have it, the “seventh art”. (And if you don’t know what the other six are, then go look them up….!)
In post-civil-war Spain, a pregnant widow and her daughter join her new husband, a captain in Franco’s army, and his unit in residence within a forest where hide a ragtag force of leftist rebels unwilling to give up the struggle, and something far older and sinister which takes an interest in the fairy-tale obsessed girl – and her brother to be….
I feel privileged that of late we have been treated to a succession of films that are made by and for adults, films that satisfy more than the most basic cravings that entertainment can satisfy, films that are almost literary in their choice of topics and the depth in which they treat them. Pan’s Labyrinth, then, succeeds such diverse fare as A History of Violence, The Constant Gardener, Syriana, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and Miami Vice as a mature work from a director who can truly be regarded as an artist rather than a journeyman. Unlike the films mentioned, it blends the fantastic and macabre with the horror of reality and war in the same manner as The Devils’ Backbone, which del Toro explained afterwards in a Q & A was entirely deliberate – this is the sister film to that brother, a film which takes place chronologically after Backbone, but which investigates a number of similar themes from a similar, yet different angle. I winced at the shocking outbursts of extremely graphic and realistic violence far more in this film than in the previous one, and the apparently benign rural paganism which the lead character dives headlong into becomes so sinister so quickly this is clearly not going to end well for many in the film. If the dusty hues and open sky and sun of The Devil’s Backbone suggested the morality play of the Western, the greens and blues here, along with the forestry, uniforms and weapons are far more in keeping with the War movie, something reinforced by the contrast between the girl’s adventures and the escalating conflict between leftist republican rebels and Franco’s fascist army. UK viewers will feel at odd moments resonances with classic wartime-set children’s stories such as The Railway Children, and at others the clash of ideologies and testing of human morality more in keeping with traditional war-set dramas.
Ultimately, the masterful balancing act del Toro pulls off between these two strands that intertwine increasingly to a shocking yet satisfying conclusion could not have been realised without the master craftsmen he and producer Alfonso Cuaron surrounded themselves with. Photography, set design, creature make-up, acting (Sergi Lopez and Maribel Verdu in particular) and, most of all, the score, are all superb examples of the individual crafts, with only the slightly-lower budget CGI possibly marring things, although the decision to go in a more painterly direction with the CGI achieves a superbly unsettling effect keeping a distance between the ‘real’ world and the ‘fantasy’ one. The combined effect, coupled with del Toro’s refined script and masterful cinematic classicism, is nothing short of completely absorbing, an exercise in the true magic of cinema, leavened with sufficient intellectual meat within the metaphors to make returning to the film something to look forward to. I suspect nothing else this Frightfest will come close other than Bong Joon-Ho’s Gwoemul aka The Host, but a film festival that delivers more than one such example of fine artistry is a successful one indeed.
Pan's Labyrinth goes on general release in the UK on 24th November 2006.