Pan's Labyrinth (El Labertino del Fauno)
Directed and written by Guillermo Del Toro


The new film from Guillermo Del Toro, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, is a tour de force of up-to-date film-making technology combined with a highly refined and accomplished example of the ancient art of story-telling. Integrating the judicious use of CGI and other computer manipulation of the images with a profound commitment to the characters and the compelling history they have to relate, Del Toro has built on the work of film-makers from as far back as the silent era in an honest, effective use of the entire filmmaker's toolbag to relate a story that combines inner and outer experience into a seamless fabric that breaks down traditional notions of where one leaves off and the other begins.

"Special effects" - in film the incorporation of special properties of filmed images, from slow, stop and accelerated motion to computer-generated and -manipulated images to create the illusion of "reality" for impossible or imaginary circumstances and events - has been with us as long as film. In the past it has often been used in its character as "trick photography" as a sort of amusing parlor trick for its own sake. It has often been a "gimmick," as in half a dozen Disney and other films that combined live-action with animation, or science fiction films that have used such techniques to try to create a believable "world of the future."

But what Del Toro is doing here is something different. His evocation of Pan's world - the Princess' true home - involves the creation of emotional reality that mirrors - creates a visual metaphor for - that of his young heroine. What he is trying to do is show the way that both outer circumstances and the way we transform them in our imagination have weight in our lives and that the conventional wisdom that it is "reality" that matters - imagination is dismissed as "only imagination" - may be a misunderstanding.

Del Toro is arguing, in effect, the position that philosophical observers of the human psyche have been considering since long before Shakespeare articulated it in Hamlet the 17th Century: "There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." This idea of other levels (or in scientific terms, "dimensions") that exist simultaneously with consensual reality and may be only marginally and ephemerally perceptible under ordinary conditions is one that has recurred throughout the history of human thought.

Today, with the strong scientific support that has emerged in recent decades for the conclusion that "reality" is only a part of a much larger complex of interactions, much of which (on the sub-particular, bio-magnetic or extra-galactic levels, for instance) is beyond our perception, this exploration is ever more timely. As Will Rogers famously quipped, "It's not what you don't know that hurts you. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." Del Toro is offering us an opportunity to examine possibilities that may shed light on that second category.

He does so through a story that is wrenchingly tragic and deeply moving. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in 1944, a young girl and her mother travel with the mother's new husband, a self-important, brutal martinet of a Fascist military officer, to a remote corner in the mountains of Northern Spain where he is to oversee "mopping up" operations against the remnants of Republican resistance. The mother is about to bear the step-father's baby, and the daughter, disoriented and alienated by having lost her father and been uprooted from her childhood home by a man whom she deeply distrusts, seeks and finds an alternative explanation of events in the metaphoric world of an imagination inspired by Fairy Tales.

The events that unfold in the literal world are increasingly brutal and senseless, and we are drawn into Ofelia's struggle to use her imagination to make meaning out of what would otherwise be unendurable. In the "parallel" world of the adults, they are also struggling with events - as they "imagine" them - in a similar but less imaginative way and with no more real success - in fact, with less.

The film is graphically and unapologetically violent. Del Toro doesn't romaticize or soft-pedal the darkness that exists across the worlds he depicts. The senselessly cruel behavior of Ofelia's step-father, Capitán Vidal, is no less brutal and disturbing than that of the "Pale Man" she meets in the course of fulfilling one of the missions the Faun sets for her. But as Ofelia - with the help and sacrifice of her friends - escapes from the Pale Man, so she also finds, through sacrifice and faith in her own values, a way to elude Vidal's intentions.

The violence is shocking, but it's purpose is not to merely to shock - quite the contrary, it is to illustrate how sickening cruelty and brutality - in the absence of imagination, and particularly that special function of interactive-imagination we call empathy - can become commonplace and acceptable. Beyond that, it also suggests that what we observe in "reality" may not (in fact, is very unlikely to be) be the "whole story" of what is unfolding both before our eyes and beyond our powers of perception. This is the redemptive core of the film's narrative: that it is not ignorance, but rather innocence, as preserved by us in our imagination, that is "bliss;" that can lift us out of that perception of the human lives that Hobbes described as "short, brutal and dull."

And the degree of violence is necessary for the emotional message of the film to get through to viewers who have become accustomed to cinematic violence as a commonplace, even as an expected component of some types of "entertainment;" who may have, in some ways lost their "innocence." For it's that sense of wonder, openness, and the ability to be deeply moved - both by kindness and by cruelty - that Del Toro is suggesting we need to restore to our lives.

In putting together this film Del Toro has assembled a wonderful team. His cast - of actors mostly unfamiliar to American audiences - does a remarkable job. First among equals is young Ivana Baquero as Ofelia. She does a convincing job with a very difficult role, never over-playing and falling into the trap of sentimentality, often allowing the audience to read in the stillness of her face their own reactions to the events to which she and we are witness. Del Toro is to be commended as well, for guiding this fine young performer in what must have been an emotionally demanding and trying role.

As her mother, Carmen, Ariadna Gil mixes self-pity and desperation with forced optimism in a way that perfectly illuminates the "forces of darkness" with which both she and her daughter are battling. Maribel Verdú, as the housekeeper Mercedes, mixes a toughness born of extremity and with a vulnerability in a way that reflects Ofelia's own efforts to find a way to respond to her rage, her fear and her loving heart.

Though clearly the "villain" of the piece, Sergei López brings a multi-dimensional understanding of Capitán Vidal. In small moments, López manages to convey something melancholy, damaged and deeply sad, something of the lost little boy who rages against his excruciating disappointment with the world in brutal attacks against others. In telling contrast to Ofelia, who imagines a beautiful world beyond the literal one, Vidal's tragedy is that he is unable to imagine any world other than the harsh and unforgiving one he creates around himself.

Doug Jones, who plays the Faun and the Pale Man, his own face lost behind masks and makeup, makes the most of body language and inflection to suggest the combination of magic and menace, of adventure and very real danger, that exists in the "magical" realm every bit as much as in the "real."

Other actors in smaller roles work equally well, supporting one another's efforts with great effect. Álex Angulo, as the Dr Ferreiro, makes the most of his part, that underlines the theme of our need to reclaim our "innocence" at any price, in a beautifully delivered short sequence toward the end of the film. Even Manolo Solo and César Vea, as two of Vidal's underlings, take the trouble to inject evocative hints about their characters in their reactions to the events they observe.

Del Toro has already proved that he is a filmmaker of unusual visual flair and imagination. Here he proves that he is truly an "actors' director," in spite of the fantastic nature of the story and the sweep of the events, never allowing his focus to stray from the actors' work in creating the characters whose story he is telling. This powerful focus and the "imagined" empathy he clearly feels for all for his characters - even the despicable Vidal - actually forms a sort of an allegory to the story, where the filmmaker, through the power of his imagination and the creation of a "world" finds a way to respond creatively to the cruelty, brutality, loss and bitter disappointment that are inevitable parts of human life.

The production values are outstanding. The cinematography presents a whole spectrum of moods and points of view, from the magical to the mundane, the tender to the savage, the claustrophobic to the expansive. Its design consistently serves the swiftly changing emotional tones which set the audience off-balance and open us to the film's possibilities. The music is evocative, supporting but never seeking to substitute for the emotional impact of events on the screen.

The costumes, make-up and production design are extraordinary - not only in the "fantasy sequences" - which are kept fairly simply for the most part, but very impressive in their effect nonetheless - but also in the other sections, where the gloomy outpost reflects the dark events taking place within, and the surrounding mountains suggest both the uplifting glory and the unforgiving indifference of the natural world - again, a contrast which only human imagination can perceive and understand.

Del Toro exhibits a formidable talent, one hinted at in his previous work but seen here fully realized for the first time. This is one of the rare and much to be treasured films whose imagery and themes, whose emotional impact, will stay with a thoughtful viewer long after the theater lights come up.

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?