Last week in these pages, I championed Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, perhaps the best film of 2006 even if it didn't reach Memphis until 2007. I think Cuarón might be the most exciting filmmaker to emerge in the past decade or so, but his countryman Guillermo del Toro might be a contender as well, given the dramatic artistic leap signified by his latest, the lovely, lyrical, but somber adult fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth. (Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu completes a trio of emerging Mexican directors, though I find his overstuffed movies less compelling than those of Cuarón or del Toro.)
Del Toro first made his mark in the mid-'90s with Cronos and Mimic, a couple of unusually self-contained and non-exploitive horror movies, and proved his Hollywood mettle with a contribution to the Blade series. But it was a couple of minor gems that established del Toro's potential. First, in 2001, came The Devil's Backbone, which surprisingly and deftly mixed supernatural elements into a period drama set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. This was followed in 2004 by the Hollywood genre flick Hellboy, a funny, personable, and sometimes downright beautiful comic-book adaptation.
In retrospect, The Devil's Backbone and Hellboy look like warm-ups for Pan's Labyrinth, which is another child's-eye view of the Spanish Civil War but one equipped with the imaginative effects of Hellboy. The result is a triumph.
Pan's Labyrinth is set in a woodsy outpost in the final days of the Spanish Civil War. An adolescent girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) are traveling to a remote military compound commanded by the girl's new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), who is combating resistance fighters hiding in the surrounding forest. (Ofelia's father, we learn, was a tailor who died in the war, though it isn't clear whether he fought for Franco or for the resistance.)
An intuitive anti-fascist, Ofelia is immediately frightened by her new father-figure and escapes into books of fairy tales, about which her mother scolds her: "You're getting older. Soon you'll see that life isn't like your fairy tales. It's a cruel place." But apparently, the mother has forgotten how much darkness and danger inhabits fairy tales, which gives them great resonance in Ofelia's waking life.
Pan's Labyrinth is essentially about the two worlds Ofelia negotiates. Lonely in Captain Vidal's creaky manor, with only a sympathetic servant (Y Tu Mamá También's Maribel Verdú) and overwhelmed mother for company, Ofelia escapes into a fantasy that proves to be not much of a respite. She is visited by an insect-like fairy, who pulls her into an "Underground Realm," a world first thought to be without "lies or pain," though these creep in. In her escapes to this world, Ofelia sees fantastic, frightening things. There's a goopy, plasmatic frog that leaps out of his skin. A humanoid creature sits at a table, surrounded by piles of bloody shoes and portraits of him (it?) eating children, rising to reveal eyeballs in his palms. And Ofelia's parallel experiences come together in terrifying ways: in the form of a fetus-like root the girl uses to help heal her sick mother or the way blank pages in one of Ofelia's books turn red when her mother has a potential miscarriage.
Both of these worlds are envisioned with great richness, and the parallel narratives comment on each other. But part of the depth and mystery of Pan's Labyrinth is how del Toro resists obvious symbolism or underscored doublings. The connections between Ofelia's waking fascist nightmare and her equally dangerous dream life are intuitively graspable and endlessly evocative yet defy easy explanation.
Opening Friday, January 19th
Studio on the Square