Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Anti-Blockbusters: Pan's Labrynth

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Pan's LabyrinthPan’s Labyrinth is a Spanish-language film written and directed by genre powerhouse Guillermo del Toro which received exposures in the United States with a sub-titled release late in 2006. The movie merges a fairy tale with a more modern, quite bleak setting that juxtaposes fantasy with harsh reality and ultimately suggests a possible reason that we choose to retreat to imaginary realms. The film takes place in Spain in 1944 under the Fascist rule of the dictatorial Franco. It focuses on a young girl name Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who travels to the Spanish countryside with her ill, pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her step-father (Sergi López i Ayats) who is a captain in the Spanish army tasked with rooting out a group of Spanish Maquis insurrectionists. While there, she encounters several fantasy creatures including fairies and a faun (Doug Jones) who explain to her that she is actually Princess Moanna of the Underground Realm and that she must pass several tests in order to return their and live with her real mother and father. She must then maneuver through the real world in which her cruel step-father deals harshly with the rebels, including several who have infiltrated his staff, while also trying to carry out the tasks set upon her by the creatures from the fantasy world.

While sitting through this film the first time, I found myself engaged by the dark fantasy world that del Toro created and interposed with the harsh real world, yet it also initially felt a bit too linear and predictable. But ultimately, once they journey was complete I realized that this was likely del Toro’s actual intent. Many things that occur throughout the film suggest their own resolutions or what will follow next. You know from the prologue that Ofelia will find her way back to her true mother and father in the fantasy world. You know that the vicious Captain Vidal will receive his comeuppance. You know that Ofelia will defy the orders given by the faun to eat nothing in the Pale Man’s room. You know that there is some significance to Mercedes’ paring knife and by the second time you see her stash it in her apron you realize she will eventually use it on Vidal. The foreshadowing in the movie is practically telegraphed, but then that harkens back to the simplistic story structure of the fairy tale which follows the same pattern. Fairy tales often deliver parables with simple messages on the consequences of actions and del Toro just overlaid that template on top of his grander story.

And in doing so, he may have hinted to at least one of the origins of the fairy tale/fantasy story: a means of escape from the harsher reality of the world. Throughout the movie, the fantasy characters seem part of the reality even if they spend their time mostly out of sight and lurking in the shadows. Only Ofelia actually interacts with them and eventually we receive the suggestion that they may exist only in her own imagination. Toward the end, when Vidal chases her through the labyrinth and encounters her talking to the faun, he sees only her, not the mythical creature. Does this mean that his disciplined, harsh, logical mind lacks the imagination to see these fantastical creatures? Or does this suggest that they only exist in Ofelia’s mind and that the final ending where she appears to be re-united with her family is just the place where her mind went in her dying moments? These possibilities leave the ending ambiguous and suggest that the purported fairy tale ending was nothing more than Ofelia’s means of escaping from the unforgiving world she lived in. And ultimately this is probably in part where many fairy tales and fantasy stories originated from. When you think of the harsh conditions that many people endured through the centuries, especially during the times that many fairy tales became well known such as the Dark Ages and Medieval Times, you can easily see where these tales may have provided a simplistic panacea to the bleakness of reality. And that definitely presents itself as one possible interpretation of Pan’s Labyrinth, though this multi-faceted movie has many other layers to its story as well.

Apart from the intricacies of the story, the movie delivers striking visuals that that at times contrast the real from the fantasy world while at other times bring the two uncomfortably close together. Del Toro uses a combination of animatronic creatures and CGI effects to bring to life his fantasy world which seems very real and at times somewhat terrifying. And he did the entire movie on budget of less than $20 million creating a product that would have cost three times that amount or more if produced by Hollywood. And had he gone that route, the major studios would have almost certainly insisted on a more upbeat, less ambiguous ending. But since he did it apart from the Hollywood machine, del Toro succeeded in conveying his vision and delivering an amazing, visually stunning, multi-layered film that succeeds on all counts on the artistic and stylistic levels.

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