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Saturday, June 14, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Director: Guillermo Del Torro
Starring: Ivanna Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu

Guillermo Del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a beautiful work of art, a fantasy tale which blooms in the midst of war and all its horrors. It is a dark story that unflinchingly explores the brutalities of real life and of children’s imaginations, making for a film that is both touching and haunting.

The film takes place in Franco’s Spain and centres on 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivanna Baquero), who moves with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to the countryside to join the Captain (Sergi Lopez), whom Ofelia is always quick to point out is not her real father. The Captain’s great concerns are himself, his soon-to-be-born son, and the rebels hiding in the mountains – more or less in that order. Unbeknownst to the Captain, two members of his household, the doctor (Alex Angulo) and Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) are collaborating with the rebels, one of whom is Mercedes’ brother.

The film is split into two connected narratives. One concerns the Captain’s quest to find and destroy the rebels, which he is determined to accomplish as viciously as possible, revelling in the pain that he is able to inflict on others. The second narrative is told from Ofelia’s perspective and takes the form of a fairytale. However, this story is no less dark than the other. As disturbing as scenes involving the Captain are, there are equally disturbing scenes involving Ofelia.

The fairytale part of the narrative adopts many of the tropes of the genre. There’s the rule of three (figured here as three tasks), the secret identity of the hero, the evil stepparent, magical helpers and, of course, the omnipresent spectre of danger. Before the coming of the full moon, Ofelia must complete her three tasks in order to return to her “real life” in the kingdom under the ground, where she is a Princess and her father is alive and waiting for her. Each task imparts a lesson meant to aide in the growth of her character. The first, which involves her crawling into a dying tree to rid it of a giant toad living inside, teaches her to be courageous in the face of her fears. The second, in which she is confronted by one of the most terrifying creatures ever imagined - and one who will only come to life if she disobeys the rule imparted to her by the Faun (“Under no circumstances are you to eat anything”) - teaches her when to obey authority. The last, when she’s asked to let the Faun cut her baby brother, teaches her when not to trust authority and instead trust her instinct. This struggle between choice and obedience, and knowing when to fight and when to acquiesce, also figures into the other narrative. Before he’s executed, the doctor tells the Captain that only people like him can go through life without questioning authority. To me, the doctor is the film’s most fascinating character because he’s someone who subverts the Captain’s authority and fights, in his own way, against the system, while also expressing some opposition to the rebellion. If the Captain is killed, another will be sent in his place, he argues. Independent thought is what people like the Captain want to put down, therefore it is through thought, rather than brute force, that they will be defeated.

Part of the reason the story works so very well is that it is open to interpretation. It can be read as a straight fairytale, in which case the ending is happy, or the fairytale elements can be read as a means for Ofelia to escape the brutal realities with which she would otherwise be unable to cope. Both readings are valid, but I tend towards the former. One reason that I lean towards this reading is the fact of Ofelia’s escape from the room in which she is locked and placed under guard towards the end. We can speculate, of course, as to how Ofelia could have realistically escaped (the guards abandoned their posts when the compound came under attack, for example), but the film itself doesn’t offer any realistic explanation. The only explanation it offers is that she used the chalk given to her by the Faun to draw a door on the wall that allows her access to other rooms in the house. And then there’s also the chase through the labyrinth, in which Ofelia temporarily escapes the Vidal when the walls shift themselves around her, hiding her from him. On the flip side, though, there’s the fact that when Vidal does find her, she’s in conversation with the Faun, who is invisible to him.

For all its narrative genius, this is a film that is also stunning on a visual level. The creatures who reside in the magic corners of this world and the labyrinth itself are wonderfully realized, sometimes beautiful and other times ugly. One of my favourite visuals from the film is during Ofelia’s story about the flower that blooms every day to bestow the gift of immortality, but can only be reached by traversing a mountain covered in poisonous thorns. Every day the flower blooms and dies because no one will risk climbing to it, as their focus is on the danger of death. The way the film shifts from the listener (Ofelia’s brother in utero) to the story, and the gloriously melancholy way that the story is dramatized for us, is beautiful. Also beautiful is the way that the story foreshadows the fates of the characters. The moral of the story is that to gain immortality you must focus on life rather than death (after all, if you climbed the mountain the poison wouldn’t affect you because you’d be immortal). Ofelia, when faced with her own death, is focused on life (specifically, that of her brother) and when she meets her end, gains immortality by being welcomed back into the other world. The Captain, by contrast, also faces death but is focused on death itself and loses his opportunity at immortality. “He won’t even know your name,” Mercedes tells him when he begins telling her what to tell the boy about him. The Captain will fade from memory, while Ofelia will live forever. So it is a happy ending, after all.

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