CrankyÕs Flickershow Reviews

By Neil Richter

Franco ÔnÕ Fantasy


            This week I am doubling back, way back, to explore one of last yearÕs biggest releases.  The film in question is Guillermo Del ToroÕs PanÕs Labyrinth, which was nominated for numerous technical Oscars, in addition to being considered last yearÕs shoe-in for Best Foreign Film. (It lost to The Lives of Others, but thatÕs another story)  Upon first viewing PanÕs Labyrinth many months ago, I was initially disappointed in the film.  There was nothing wrong with it per see, but as one of the best-reviewed films of the year, I simply expected more out of it.  My opinion remained set on this movie for many moons.  Then, I recently had the chance to sit down and view it again.  This time around I was able to more freely give in to PanÕs LabyrinthÕs many pleasures.  My overall opinion has since gone up a few notches.  I can honestly say that this particular film, with this particular idea, couldnÕt have been made better than this.

       This is not to say that the movie is perfect.  I sincerely believe that The Lives of Others was the best foreign film last year.  It is a tighter, more focused film that does a better job of connecting with the audience on an emotional and cerebral level.  Still, PanÕs Labyrinth rules the area of greatest immediacy:  the gut. 

Allow me to outline the plot:  In the mid 40Õs, Spain is locked in a vicious civil war between the fascist dictator Franco and the remaining rebel forces.  Young Ofelia and her pregnant mother go to live with the motherÕs new husband, Captain Vidal, a General in FrancoÕs army.  Their living arrangements are far from ideal.  Vidal has been stationed with his men at a rural farmhouse to crush the resistance fighters living in the hills.  ItÕs an ugly environment for young Ofelia, especially after the CaptainÕs true, sadistic nature is revealed.  She quickly escapes into fantasy, believing that she is the lost princess of the underworld.  She sets out to accomplish three tasks, which will hopefully lead her back to the throne, away from this hell on earth.

       First, the good.  With PanÕs Labyrinth, Del Toro takes fairy tales back to their bloody roots.  OfeliaÕs odyssey among the fairies and fauns of her imagination is marked with just as much ugliness as her day-to-day life with the captain.  As Ofelia encounters horrifying creatures, such as a hideous albino-looking monster with eyes in its hands, I was taken back to a fantasy world that is conspicuously pre-Disney, when fables were told predominantly as warnings to children.  These sections also featured some dynamite special effects, including impressive CGI and live-action creature design.

       Despite the films title, the majority of its dramatic tension comes from the segments taking place in the real world.  It is here that one finds the filmÕs greatest strengths, and weaknesses.  For one, Del Toro is able to create an absolutely hateful villain in Captain Vidal.  It is rare that we are subjected to a character this brutal, this sadistic in a mainstream film.  Spanish actor Sergi Lopez truly sinks his teeth into the part and comes up with something terrifying in its banality.  HeÕs a great creation.  There is a perverse pleasure in waiting to see this guy get his just desserts.

 When the filmÕs violent climax finally arrived, I felt catharsis, but also a certain guilt.  Should I really be enjoying this?  Herein lies my most pointed criticism toward the film.  In demonstrating Captain VidalÕs savagery as an agent of the fascist Franco, Del Toro seems to overstep his boundaries.  In interviews he stated that he was simply trying to be honest about the horrors of fascism.  I can respect that.  However, too often Del ToroÕs roots as a horror filmmaker come into view in a subject that shouldnÕt bring that out of him in the first place.  For instance, isnÕt it enough that this man kills with impunity?  What is gained by watching one of his victims have his face smashed to a pulp by a wine bottle in loving close-up?  Furthermore, by putting this character through brutal tortures of his own near the end of the film, Del Toro invites us to relish the bloodshed.  We are expected to feel a certain satisfaction at watching Vidal and his cronies die horrible deaths.  I realize that this is pure action-movie psychology, but this is not an action film.  Del Toro is imposing a double-standard by making some of the violence bad and horrible because its happening to civilians, and other sequences of violence justified and even ÔfunÕ to watch because its against perpetrators like Vidal.  In many ways, this is an attitude that makes us no better than a character like Vidal.  Just like him, we show our affinity for violence.  I think that this is a manipulative technique.

In a way, this is backhanded praise; because PanÕs Labyrinth is well made enough that it warrants this kind of discussion.  Without a doubt, Del Toro is as skilled a manipulator and provocateur as he is a visual stylist.  He can make us hate, he can make us afraid, and, perhaps most importantly, he can tell us what to feel during a certain scene using his craft.  That is why I take issue with his treatment of scenes such as the above examples.

       And yet, there is such beauty here along with all the brutality.  OfeliaÕs flights of fancy are grim, yes, but also stunningly realized.  The entire film is glazed over with dark earth tones and nostalgic sepias that take us deep into this fully-realized chapter of SpainÕs past.  It goes a long way toward extinguishing the misplaced bloodlust and an ending that manages to be just this side of weak.  All in all, PanÕs Labyrinth is a terrific fantasy that, while not being the best foreign film of the year, is perhaps the most entertaining.  Rent it.

       One last thing, in case you didnÕt get my hints, its not a rental for the kids.  TheyÕll have nightmares for months.