Thursday, April 12, 2007

KBT Presents: PAN'S LABYRINTH


Mexican fantasy horror maestro Guillermo del Toro has two careers. The first one is in English language features: smart mid-budget Hollywood blockbusters such as Hellboy, Blade II and even Mimic (which gets a bit of an undeserved bad rap, even from Del Toro himself). His second career yields dark, complex fantasy tales in Spanish which are not afraid to lay on a bit of gore, get under the skin, and tickle the brain. For Pan’s Labyrinth not only is he working with the latter hat on, he has done what I thought would be impossible. He has gone and made a feature even better than the sublime The Devil’s Backbone. It is possibly the most thematically complex, emotional, and stylish genre film you will see this year.

While many folks did manage to catch this Spanish language film theatrically, I recently got my DVD copy of the film in a pretty little set from (of all places) Korea. The film is not out in North America yet; and I've been itching to delve into the film once again to confirm whether or not the film is as good as I remember it, catching it in the heady blur of the 2006 Toronto Film Festival.
Set near the end of WWII, the film opens with Ofelia and her very pregnant mother traveling to an army outpost so that Ofelia’s stepfather can be present for the birth of their son. During a break in the travel, an innocent action from Ofelia reveals the presence of the faerie in the bright forested countryside. When they arrive at the outpost, crisply uniformed and neatly groomed fascist step-father awaits checking his pocket watch for timeliness. Captain Vidal is the epitome of European fascist warlord and is played by a perfectly cast Sergi López who perfected this sort of menace in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things and the Hitchcockian thriller With A Friend Like Harry. Vidal hosts a sumptuous banquet as he discusses rationing of the locals food so any extra will not fall into the hands of the rebels. He casually shoots anyone who may or may not be helping the rebels. He only cares about his wife insofar as she is the vessel for the wellbeing of his unborn son. Vidal barely notices Ophelia who is left to freely wander the grounds which include a stone maze, and a particularly vaginal tree, as well as endless miles of beautiful Spanish forest. Ophelia is well read, and quickly picks up on who in the camp is helping the rebels and why, although still being a child, wanders innocently and seemingly powerlessly around in the world of adults. When the faerie visits Ophelia again one night, she follows it out into the stone maze and meets a spectacularly Gothic faun (the titular Pan) who tells Ophelia she is actually the princess of magical kingdom.

You will often seen Pan's Labyrinth far too labeled simply as a "Faerie tale for Adults." While that may look good on the marketing materials, the fantastic element of the film is less than a fifth of the running time. Often cited as a flaw in the film, I think this is exactly the right balance to maintain the sense of danger and tension. Too much fantasy would stomp on the films brutality. And there is nothing wrong with an audience left wanting a little more compared to being beaten over the head.

The films visuals take cues from decidedly non children sources such as Chinatown and The Shining. Fair warning that there are scenes of terrifyingly bloody childbirth and the film is fond of the phrase “sick with baby” to describe a mothers discomfort an impending childbirth. Pan’s Labyrinth is a film that you might want to hold back from friends who are expecting. And perhaps you should let the kiddies discover this film into their teenage years; even then a nightmare or two will likely follow. It is a bit of a shame that such a rich story of innocence and and Christian sensibility (with a fantasy bent) is perhaps a tad too horrifying for the younger set who will have to stick pretty pablum like the Harry Potter or whitewashed non-events such as the recent Chronicles of Narnia film. Since Pan's Labyrinth similar lines to the C.S. Lewis tale, Pan’s Labyrinth exposes the Disney/Walden production as the thin hollow display of pageantry it is. Pan's Labyrinth goes all the way to celebrate the imagination, focusing on innocence lost upon entering adulthood (or a country in an unjust war) is worth fighting to regain at all costs, even if in the end this can prove somewhat elusive.

Is it better if Dorothy stays in Oz rather than return to Kansas, just so that someone is keeping the home fires burning? Pan’s Labyrinth is not by any means a film of despair, flowers of hope bloom after the passing of darkness.
Come out Thursday April 12th for a unique film experience and my personal favorite film at the end of 2006. If you managed to catch it in the theatres, here is hoping the film is worth a second look. Drinks (and home-made pizza) @ 8pm. Trailers and Showtime at 8:30pm.

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