Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
February 2007

Paradise lost

Del Toro creates a masterful fantasy-cum-political parable with 'Pan's Labyrinth'

Pan's Labyrinth
Picturehouse
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil, Alex Angulo, Manolo Solo and Doug Jones
Rated R / 1 hour, 52 minutes
(out of four)

Fascism takes center stage in Guillermo del Toro's haunting masterpiece, Pan's Labyrinth, a thoughtful and terrifying rumination on the respective power of violence, resistance and hope.

Is that what you thought it was about? Good, then you've been paying attention. Picturehouse, the studio that financed and distributed the film, hasn't been paying quite as much attention . . . or at least it doesn't seem that way, as they're selling Pan's Labyrinth simply as a fantasy film and nothing more. Maybe that will get people in the seats, but it also seems to be fooling some into thinking that it's a good movie for kids, or that it's just a fun fairy-tale fantasy-adventure. Both assumptions would be dead wrong.

This is a film for adults. It has been described as an "adult fairy tale," and that's as fitting a description as any. There is a mystical fantasy world and curses and an ancient prophecy, and while it is a beautifully constructed part of the film, it is just that - a part of the film. And, in fact, it is peripheral to the film's primary storyline, which takes place in a very real and very scary real world - especially from the view of sad-eyed 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), for whom the fantasy underworld exists.

Del Toro uses her plight to explore, in fierce intensity, dark sides of human nature. What he accomplishes is a thoughtful and brilliant socio-political parable, and what better way to tell it than through a child's eyes?

A straight fantasy film certainly wouldn't be a surprise from del Toro, the director of Mimic and Hellboy. But his intentions are deeper and more fleshed-out than ever before. Yes, del Toro - best known for his visual bravura - once again creates a lush and beautiful production that perfectly captures the mood of its world and characters. But the fantasy world being broadcast in posters and TV spots is only secondary. It's a world that exists only for Ofelia, and it serves more to enhance the main thrust of the plot, which takes place in the stark and tragic reality of Ofelia's everyday life.

Del Toro revisits the time, style and subject matter of his 2001 horror film, The Devil's Backbone. It is the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War under the rule of Francisco Franco. Ofelia has moved with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to the Spanish countryside to live with the diabolical Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who has been sent to ward off a small faction of the Spanish Resistance. Vidal, we discover with little surprise, cares little for the girl or her mother but uses them only because of his unborn son and future heir.

Ofelia's mother, Carmen, is in the last stages of her pregnancy and is often confined to her bed, so Ofelia - who spends much of her time immersed in fantasies and fairy tales against the Captain's wishes - finds another mother figure in Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), a housekeeper and secretly a member of the Resistance.

But Ofelia's life is a sad one. Even the fantasy world where she spends her nights dreaming begins to parallel her real-life existence that quickly descends into nightmare.

With Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro has somehow found the perfect balance between the themes he wants to explore and the fantastical tale he wants to tell. Neither aspect undermines the other. They work in concert with one another. I've heard a few - not many, but a few - complain that they were "expecting" more of a fantasy. Expecting something more traditionally entertaining, something not so serious. More fantasy, less history.

But if that were the case, Pan's Labyrinth wouldn't be Pan's Labyrinth. Del Toro knows how to get the best of both worlds. His visuals, as usual, are inscrutable. The creatures and art direction created by CafeFX - and based on del Toro's own sketches - are amazing creations. Ofelia's first introduction to the fantasy world that is her destiny comes in the form of a fairy, a meticulous digital creation that blends into the film seamlessly. Then there is the fawn, Pan, who serves as sort of a liaison between Ofelia's past and her future.

I don't have to say anything about the creation of the fawn - just see for yourself. I would also like to talk, in depth, about the Pale Man - a horrifying creature that comes to life in a moment of electrifying suspense - but I will resist. You'll just have to see for yourself.

Del Toro's artistic voice has as much joy and imagination as the best of fantasy. And yet there's a bleak darkness that encompasses it all. Ofelia is forced to grow up far too fast and experiences horror and heartbreak at much too young an age. And del Toro underscores it all with a haunting sense of foreboding as his story builds to its pitch-perfect conclusion.

Pan's Labyrinth is much more than great production design and brilliant visual effects. This is a magnificent fable that fully realizes its historical and fairy-tale roots.

The film is full of hope and despair, horror and beauty. It is in turn savagely violent and overtly sentimental. It is, so far, the defining work of del Toro's career, not only reinforcing his reputation as a visual artist, but examining what lies in the depths of the human spirit - what we accept, what we believe, what we will fight for.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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